BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Britain should get a fair deal in the European Union but cannot impose its agenda on the bloc’s other 27 members, EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker said on Monday, weighing in on a sensitive issue in a tight British election race.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said that if he wins Thursday’s election, he would hold a referendum on EU 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 Cameron will be returned to power, with opinion polls suggesting that neither his ruling Conservatives nor the centre-left Labour Party will win enough seats to control parliament on their own.
“I want a fair deal with Britain, but Britain is not in a situation to impose its exclusive agenda to all the other member states of Europe,” European Commission President Juncker told students at the University of Leuven in Belgium.
Cameron has said he wants to be able to limit an influx of people from other EU states to Britain, putting him at odds with the European Commission, which says EU treaty provisions ensuring free movement of labour are non-negotiable.
“I am a strong defender of the freedom of movement of workers, this is a basic principle of the European Union,” Juncker said.
He invited Britain to present a list of its requests, which the EU would study “and then we’ll see”.
He said he did not want Britain to leave the EU, but nor did he want the EU to follow an exclusive British command.
The Labour party has said it would only hold a referendum on EU membership if there were a substantial transfer of power to Brussels — something that is neither imminent nor likely.
Cameron fought Juncker’s appointment as European Commission president last year, seeing the former Luxembourg prime minister as too federalist. Cameron forced an unprecedented EU summit vote over his nomination but lost 26-2.
Juncker again raised British hackles in March when he said the EU needed its own army to face up to Russia. Britain has always opposed an EU army, fearing it would undermine NATO.
Juncker said on Monday that the British had got “really upset when I was pleading the other day in favour of a European army, which is not a short-term issue, but is of course a long-term issue.”
Editing by Crispian Balmer