European council president Herman Van Rompuy says no other leader likely to back plan to change terms and put to referendum
David Cameron has been put on notice that no other EU leader is likely to support his campaign to rewrite the terms of British membership of the union and then put the outcome to a referendum.
As Britain faces a fresh EU battle over a proposal to cap bankers' bonuses, Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European council, attacked the way the prime minister was waging his campaign for a "new settlement" in Britain's 40-year membership of the EU.
The president said he presumed leaders of other EU countries "neither particularly like … nor particularly fear" Cameron's plans to demand the repatriation of powers during a future revision of the Lisbon treaty.
"How do you convince a room full of people, when you keep your hand on the door handle? How to encourage a friend to change, if your eyes are searching for your coat?" he asked at a Policy Network conference in London.
The intervention by Van Rompuy, who chairs and organises the regular EU summits, came as Cameron served notice that Britain would challenge an EU agreement to slash bankers' bonuses at a meeting of European finance ministers next week.
Amid fears that the EU agreement could deal a hammer blow to the City of London, Cameron said EU regulations needed to be flexible enough to allow international banks to operate in Britain and the rest of the EU.
At a meeting of Nordic leaders in the Latvian capital of Riga, he said: "We need to make sure that regulation put in place in Brussels is flexible enough to allow [international] banks [in London] to continue competing and succeeding while being located in the UK."
Britain will need to win allies to amend, or reject, the plans hammered out in Brussels on Wednesday night between officials from the EU's 27 members, MEPs and the European commission. They are decided by qualified majority voting, which means no member state has a national veto.
But there were signs that the UK is in danger of alienating one of its closest allies when the Netherlands questioned Cameron's plan to use a future treaty change, which may be held to underpin the euro, as a way of repatriating powers.
Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign minister, told the Policy Network conference: "We will do everything to avoid treaty change if we can fix [the eurozone] within existing treaties. I believe this is the common opinion in almost all member states.
" This is going to be an interesting case for the British government. If they still want a referendum one would ask: a referendum on what if you don't have a treaty change?"
In the first set-piece response from a European leader to Cameron's speech, Van Rompuy endorsed the Dutch view that there is scant appetite for renegotiating the Lisbon treaty. "Changing the EU treaties is not the priority," he said. "The work ahead is crucial, but I see no impending need to open the EU treaties for it. Nor do I feel much appetite for it around the leaders' table."
The president warned that UK government policy on Europe was not just a matter to be sorted out between London and Brussels. It had to be agreed with 26 other governments which were already adjusting their policies and decision-taking because of the Cameron campaign.
In remarks not voiced in public since Cameron made his much-delayed referendum speech last month, and delivered in London to boot, the former Belgian prime minister said: "The wish to redefine your country's relationship with the union has not gone unnoticed. I cannot speak on behalf of the other presidents and prime ministers, but I presume they neither particularly like it, nor particularly fear it."
Arguing that Britain had much to gain by remaining a central player in the EU, and that pooling sovereignty with Germany, France and the other 25 member states actually magnified UK clout, Van Rompuy called on Cameron to play a more assertive and positive role in pressing its liberal, free-trade agenda.
Olli Rehn, the influential commissioner for monetary affairs, echoed Van Rompuy's call for Britain to play a more central role, warning that it "should not seek to undo our community. This is a game in which, if I were a British citizen, I would want my country to be playing as a midfield playmaker rather than watching from the sidelines. No one ever scored goals sitting on the bench."
Van Rompuy conceded that Cameron would be able to discuss the changes he was seeking at an EU summit, while appearing to rule out any fundamental revision of British membership terms.
Senior officials and EU ambassadors in Brussels confirmed this was the prevailing view among the other governments.
Appearing to deliver a message to Cameron and Britain that had been co-ordinated with other EU capitals, Van Rompuy said: "[The leaders] will first listen, once there are precise requests, and then they will talk. The thing is, stepping out of existing areas of co-operation is not just a matter between 'London' and 'Brussels'.
" It would impact on the relationship between your country and 26, soon 27 others. It is with each of them – friends, neighbours and partners – that you'll have to make your case."
Van Rompuy argued that Britain was almost uniquely placed to amplify its international influence through a leading role in the EU.
"Your views resonate with many countries. With them, Britain can play an absolutely central part in making Europe's economy fit for the future. The role is yours to take," he told the British.
"The UK's commercial outreach, its military and diplomatic clout are matched only by a few. You are uniquely placed to leverage your own initiatives, and therefore by working jointly you have the most to win. For a country like the UK, to make its voice heard in the world, 'Europe' does not work as a damper, but as a megaphone."
He reiterated concerns, delivered in an interview with the Guardian in December, that other EU leaders feared the single market could unravel if Britain was allowed to pick and mix the bits it adhered to and the bits it won exemptions from.
Van Rompuy warned that Britain was free to exit the EU, but that the exit "doesn't come for free. It would be legally and politically a most complicated and unpractical affair. Just think of a divorce after 40 years of marriage."
(da http://www.guardian.co.uk, 28/02/2013)