BRUSSELS/BERLIN (Reuters) - David Cameron won encouragement from Europe’s powerbroker Angela Merkel as he prepared for a summit on Thursday that could set Britain on course to stay in or quit the European Union.
But though the chancellor vowed to help Germany’s “natural ally” Britain secure reforms to the bloc that the prime minister says he needs to win a referendum on EU membership, she warned that Cameron’s push to curb immigration by Europeans must not breach the bloc’s core principle of free movement for workers.
With polls showing failure to secure a deal could swing a tight vote against continued EU membership, Merkel said it would be “very challenging” to reach an accord, which EU officials hope to conclude by the next summit in mid-February. But noting past EU flexibility towards members’ needs she added: “I am therefore confident we can do it this time.”
The comments in Berlin by the most powerful of the 27 other national leaders he will face across a Brussels dinner table underscored the messages Cameron can expect to hear at the first discussion of his demands by the full European Council, where chairman Donald Tusk wants an open debate with “no taboos”.
One message is that no one wants the EU’s second-ranked economy and a major military power to quit. But Cameron will also hear that his call for workers from other EU states to wait four years before receiving the same state benefits as Britons may breach EU treaties forbidding national discrimination.
Tusk pinpointed welfare as the most divisive of the British reform demands in a letter to EU leaders last week following a month of consultations with national governments.
There is no final agreement on any of the four topics on which Cameron asked for change in a letter to Tusk in November and officials said there will be no discussion of legal details on Thursday. Diplomats hope, however, that the political leaders closeted over dinner can break through some of the legal logjam facing officials and provide guidance on where to compromise.
But they cannot make agreements that breach existing EU treaties. Diplomats said Cameron would emphasize that some of the solutions he wants will need change to treaties -- probably via binding promises rather than in a way that could oblige some states to ratify changes in tricky national votes any time soon.
Cameron has rejected suggestions he will drop his demand on the four-year benefits delay but has made clear he is open to alternatives that would achieve the same result of cutting immigration from poorer European states in the east and south.
Various ideas are circulating among diplomats in Brussels, though British officials say most fall short.
“The prime minister is going there not with a Plan B in his back pocket but with the proposals that we have already announced,” a source close to the negotiations said.
“He will want to assess the reaction of his colleagues.”
Possible alternatives include more change to British national welfare laws, focusing on curbing benefits for unemployed EU citizens -- less protected by the treaties -- or mechanisms to discriminate on the basis of residency rather than nationality.
In a rare public manifestation of the bureaucratic machine in overdrive on these issues, the EU commissioner in charge of labor issues, Marianne Thyssen, explained to the European Parliament why she was delaying proposals to overhaul EU rules for migrant workers. Her plan had been expected this month.
“When exactly we will be tabling it also depends on the political context,” Thyssen said, saying the timing would be considered again after Cameron’s discussions on Thursday.
Cameron, who has promised a referendum within two years, says he wants to stay in a reformed EU but makes clear he might campaign to leave if he fails to get what he wants.
One opinion poll on Wednesday showed that few voters think he can deliver his full range of changes, which include giving more protection for sterling-using Britain in an EU dominated by the euro zone, more power in the EU for national parliaments and clearer limits on future European integration.
The poll also showed clear support for staying in the EU, however. Another survey found that failure to secure reforms on migration or the euro could swing opinion so that the result would be too close to call.
Cameron is likely to start dinner with a detailed summing up of his goals and the political problems he faces, with voters in Britain complaining that rapid immigration, notably from Poland and other poorer states, has created strains on local services, even if there is also evidence the newcomers boost the economy.
He may secure a degree of sympathy, though leaders from eastern Europe are wary of their own voters’ demands not to face discrimination in the West. And diplomats warn that with many other crises facing the Union, including migration from other parts of the world, leaders’ “bandwidth” is limited and Cameron has won few friends at the table in recent years.
Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London; Editing by Gareth Jones