Brussels proposals to keep Britain in the EU under scrutiny


LONDON (AP) – A pivotal “in or out” referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union moved one step closer Tuesday as British and European leaders presented new draft proposals aimed at keeping the 28-nation EU intact.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who hopes to secure an agreement that will convince a skeptical public to remain part of the EU, said the new plans show “real progress” in his bid to give Britain more control over its affairs.

Cameron will seek more concessions and then the endorsement of other EU members at a Feb. 18 summit before scheduling a referendum that may be held in Britain as early as June.

“I think we will be able to show – if we can secure what’s in this document, finish off the details and improve it still further – that on balance Britain is better off, more secure, more prosperous, has a better chance of success for all of our families and all our people inside this reformed European Union,” Cameron said.

Britain is a full member of the EU, but is often seen as having one foot in and one foot out, with the right to opt out of certain legislation, particularly in the areas of justice and immigration.

Cameron’s push to hold a referendum has raised troubling questions about the future of the ambitious European project at a time when the refugee emergency and financial crisis in Greece weigh heavily on the bloc.

European Council President Donald Tusk, who published the proposals in Brussels, said they go a long way toward meeting Cameron’s concerns without violating the key founding principles of the EU, which endorses the free movement of people throughout the region.

The proposals would make it possible for British lawmakers to work with European counterparts to block unwanted EU laws and also recognize that Britain now faces an “exceptional situation” regarding the influx of immigrants taxing Britain’s social services.

They would end Britain’s commitment to an “ever closer union” with Europe and recognize its ability to stay out of the euro single currency.

Cameron cited progress in his concerted bid to make citizens of other EU nations wait before claiming welfare benefits in Britain, although details about an “emergency brake” mechanism that would be used have not been spelled out.

Experts said it is not clear the proposal as it now stands will win the needed unanimous backing of other EU members or placate many Britons who have come to resent the EU’s rule-making power and worry about the arrival on European shores of more than 1 million people fleeing war and poverty in the past year.

Anand Menon, director of the independent think-tank UK In a Changing Europe, said the draft represents a “diplomatic masterstroke” but predicts the process may be slower than expected.

“I very much doubt it will persuade swing voters,” he said of the proposals. “And there is probably enough in there to irritate some of the member states, so it may not get through. France has made noise on the eurozone and the Poles are making noise about migrants and benefits. There could be a fight at the Feb. 18 summit and then it would be concluded later.”

Thomas Raines, a coordinator of the Europe program at the Chatham House think tank, said the proposals fall short in terms of Cameron’s stated goals of limiting EU migration into Britain and limiting welfare payments to migrants. But he said there is enough in the proposals to provide “a bit of political cover” to Cameron.

“I think the real value for Cameron is that it should be enough to get a majority of his parliamentary colleagues on side,” he said. “It will allow him to present to the public that this is not the status quo.”

However, former defense secretary Liam Fox, who wants Britain to pull out, said the proposals are inadequate.

“The very limited set of demands from our government have been watered down by the EU in every area,” he said. “The British people want to take back control and end the supremacy of EU law over our economy, our borders and our Parliament. None of these changes even come close to the fundamental changes promised to the public.”

Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party, called the draft proposal “truly pathetic” because it does not change EU treaties and does not restore Britain’s ability to control its borders and its laws.

“There is no fundamental reform, there’s some fiddling around the edges on migrant benefits,” he said.

Some business leaders struck a more positive note. Simon Walker, Director General of the Institute of Directors, said the deal is better than had been expected.

“The top reform priorities for IoD members are to stop the flow of unnecessary red tape from Brussels, make clear the U.K. is not on a path to more political integration, and make the EU more competitive,” he said. “There are proposals on these areas in Tusk’s draft which hold promise, although no one should get carried away just yet.”

He cautioned that most of the group’s members are waiting to see the final outcome of negotiations before they decide whether to give thumbs up or down to continued EU membership.

Experts from EU nations are due to meet Friday for a first joint discussion of the proposals, hoping to pave the way for an agreement at the summit.

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