BRUSSELS (Reuters) - David Cameron will have an expectant but not especially patient, or even attentive, audience when he meets fellow European Union leaders at a summit in Brussels at the end of this week.
“Waiting for David” has become something of a catchphrase among diplomats and officials, who say the British prime minister is frustrating them by not yet detailing his demands for new EU legislation ahead of the membership referendum he plans to hold within the next couple of years.
But as ‘In’ and ‘Out’ campaigns gear up, a fear of partisan leaks in the boisterous British media means the other 27 EU governments are still waiting to see written draft proposals from London. And without that “trigger”, EU officials say, real political negotiations cannot start.
“They need leaks like a hole in the head,” said one person close to “technical talks” in Brussels in which EU and British officials have been mapping out procedures for a negotiation.
The draft agenda for Thursday and Friday includes a briefing by summit chair Donald Tusk “about the process ahead” concerning the British vote, which is expected between early next summer and an end-2017 deadline.
But few expect to hear much more during a meeting that will be dominated by the Syrian refugee crisis, including relations with Turkey and Russia, and by proposals to bolster the euro zone following the latest chapter of the Greek debt crisis.
Cameron’s spokeswoman said a “more substantive discussion” on Britain’s demands was expected at the next regular summit in mid-December, by which time, she said, there would have been “more detailed discussions” with the other member states.
“David Cameron is very discreet — and I can understand why,” a senior EU official said after Cameron’s last visit two weeks ago, when he met Tusk, president of the European Council.
British voters’ perceptions of whether Cameron has succeeded in his negotiations will be crucial — making it important to manage appearances of what he will ask for and what he achieves. And it is too early to assess what other leaders will accept.
British officials note that, since his re-election in May, Cameron has set out broad areas where he wants change: relations between London and the euro; a more efficient, less federal EU; and, critically, curbs on immigration by EU citizens.
At a summit in June, EU leaders agreed to discuss the issue in December, raising expectations that by then the negotiations among ministers and officials would be well advanced.
But with Cameron in charge of the vote timing, and refusing to prejudge negotiations by backing an ‘In’ vote, his Europe minister played down expectations of a December deal during last week’s annual Conservative conference.
“If you want a deal, you have to write things down,” a second senior EU official told Reuters. “And no one wants to write things down because everything leaks.”
A third senior official said having a substantive discussion at December’s summit may mean having “a starting point, a paper” by early next month to set out all the issues for member states.
Some of the loudest ‘Out’ voices are within Cameron’s own party and, with the Conservative conference over, he may be readier to set out more detail, knowing that whatever he asks for will be condemned as too little by some, and too much by others.
Among officials in Tusk’s European Council, the forum for national governments, and the executive European Commission run by Jean-Claude Juncker, with whom Cameron will lunch on Thursday, there is an insistence on a will to negotiate and a confidence about reaching a “fair deal” for Britain and the EU.
But on both sides of the table there is a growing awareness of the unpredictability of referendums and of the scope for mutual misunderstandings before 2017, a year that will also feature elections in big EU powers France and Germany.
One senior EU official, noting how combative British politics is, said Cameron would need to show he had “won one big fight” in Brussels to convince voters to back any new deal. But the official added: “I’m not sure the Europeans are ready for that.”
Another EU source warned that, if Cameron reprised tactics of going home from Brussels declaring “I won”, and failed to swap confrontation for consensus, then other leaders could block his demands, however much they want to keep Europe’s second biggest economy in the EU.
“If he wants headlines saying the UK humiliated France, he will fail,” the official said. “This is not rugby.”
British officials say Cameron and his lead negotiator, Chancellor George Osborne, have learnt lessons from a bruising experience four years ago when Cameron surprised and infuriated EU peers by imposing a rare summit veto.
Both have spent recent months cultivating ties with other governments. And London is confident that EU leaders do not want to see the bloc badly damaged by the Britons voting to leave.
Nonetheless, British officials also acknowledge a “bandwidth issue”, aware that EU leaders’ time and appetite for appeasing Cameron is limited as migrants, Russia, Greece and the euro zone economy all seem to threaten the bloc’s very existence.
“The EU is limping from one crisis to another and there is a risk of the British issue being squeezed,” one said.
This week’s summit briefing from Tusk, with possible input from Cameron, fresh from a weekend spent in part with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is intended at least to reassure other leaders they are being kept informed, another official said.
However, the most frequently asked question he may hear from some fairly exasperated counterparts is “What do you want?”.
“We still just don’t know what he’s really asking for,” one senior diplomat said, echoing a commonplace in the EU capital.
“Does he even know himself?” asked another envoy, from a government seen as one of London’s closest allies in the bloc.
“Frankly, he’s been very silly. No one wants to see the United Kingdom leave. But it’s up to Cameron to sort this out.”
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; @macdonaldrtr; Editing by Kevin Liffey