BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker said he believed Britain could find a compromise on reforming the European Union to keep it in the bloc but ruled out big changes to the open border policy that worries many Britons.
In remarks broadcast by the BBC on Tuesday, nine days before an election that could return a British prime minister committed to a referendum on EU membership, European Commission President Juncker stressed that detailed discussion was premature without clarity on what the new government in London would request.
But the former Luxembourg premier voiced irritation at suggestions in Britain that he had ruled out all treaty changes during a five-year mandate he began six months ago.
“It depends on the request,” Juncker said. “It depends on other issues like the deepening of economic and monetary union that could easily lead to treaty changes, too.”
He added: “I‘m not asking for treaty changes and I do exclude major treaty changes as far as the freedom of movement is concerned, but other points can be mentioned and there were policy changes which are possible under the existing treaty.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was deeply opposed to Juncker’s appointment, has said he will hold an in/out referendum on membership in 2017 once he has renegotiated EU treaties to wrest back powers from Brussels -- notably a right to limit immigration within the 28-nation bloc.
However, it is far from clear that he will win re-election on May 7 and is running neck-and-neck in the opinion polls with the centre-left Labour Party, which has said it would only hold a referendum if there were a substantial transfer of power to Brussels -- something that is neither imminent nor likely.
The Commission president said he did not want Britain to leave the European Union and promised to seek a “fair deal”.
“There’s still room for finding intersectional space between what I think Britain will propose and what I think about the European reaction,” he said.
Other EU states, while keen not to lose Britain’s economic and military power from the bloc, are reluctant to open up a process of treaty change that would oblige some to hold ratification referendums they would struggle to win in the face of growing public disenchantment with European institutions.
Like Juncker, other EU leaders have said existing migration rules do give states powers to curb EU citizens moving country simply in search of higher welfare benefits -- a key issue for voters in Britain uneasy at immigration from eastern Europe.
British officials, however, believe changes in treaties may be required in any case for euro zone states to modify the rules of the single currency -- giving Britain an opportunity to negotiate changes that it would like to see, too.
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; @macdonaldrtr; Editing by Crispian Balmer