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Published: Thursday 28th May 2015 by Leo Stevens
David Cameron has kicked off a two-day whistlestop tour of European capitals to bolster support for his EU reform plans.
The Prime Minister met Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte as he begins the work of securing sufficient changes to the relationship with Brussels to convince British voters to keep the country in the European Union.
His first meeting came as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said only “substantial” reforms would allow the Government to win the in/out referendum promised by the end of 2017 in the face of eurosceptic opposition.
Mr Cameron will head to Paris for discussions with President Francois Hollande, before travelling to Warsaw for talks tomorrow with Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz and then Berlin to see Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose backing is crucial to success.
Arriving for a working lunch in The Hague, Mr Cameron said the UK and the Netherlands were ” old friends and like-minded allies”.
He told his host: “I am looking forward to discussing many issues but obviously we will be talking about European reform and the need to focus on flexibility, the need to focus on growth and jobs, the need to make sure we complete the single market, the need to make sure that, as you have put it, ‘Europe where necessary but nation states where possible’.
“We have worked together on making sure that the European budget is under control, we have worked together on trade deals with other parts of the world, we have worked together on strong, pro-market, pro-enterprise agenda.
“So we will discuss all that and my plans for European reform.”
Mr Hammond said he remained confident that a deal was possible b ut he acknowledged that the Government faced some difficult negotiations with EU partners in the months ahead.
“We are at the very beginning of a process here. We have a very clear set of requirements,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“The Prime Minister is very clear in dealing with European counterparts that if we are not able to deliver on these big areas of concern that the British people have, we will not win the referendum when it comes.
“We expect our European Union partners to engage with us in delivering a package that will enable the British people to decide that Britain’s future is best delivered inside the European Union.
“We expect that some of our partners will adopt a hard line at the start of the negotiations – that’s how negotiation works – but we are very confident that, over the course of the summer and perhaps onwards through the winter, we will be able to negotiate a substantial package of reform which will address the concerns that the British people have.”
Mr Hammond confirmed that the Government believed the reforms it was seeking – particularly on curbing migrants’ access to benefits – would require changes to the EU treaties, potentially making it harder to get an agreement.
“The advice that we are getting is that we will need treaty change in order to underpin particularly the changes on migration and welfare benefits. That is the best legal advice that we are receiving,” he said.
Under the provisions of the EU Referendum Bill, being tabled in Parliament today, the referendum – which will determine whether the UK remains a member of the EU – has to be held before the end of 2017.
While Mr Hammond confirmed the Government had not ruled out the possibility that it could take place next year, he sought to play down the prospects of an early vote.
“I would urge people not to speculate on an early date. We are absolutely clear that we have to get this right. We are certainly not going to trade substantive reform just for getting it done quickly. We have to get it done properly,” he said.
A visit to Copenhagen to meet Danish premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt was cancelled after she called a snap general election.
The Referendum Bill also sets out the wording of the referendum question, with voters being asked if the UK should “remain a member” of the European Union when they go to the polls.
It means supporters of Britain retaining its ties to Brussels will form the “Yes” campaign when the vote comes.
The Conservatives’ previously-preferred wording – ”Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?” – has been dropped following concerns by the Electoral Commission that some people might think the country was not already a member.
Instead the watchdog’s recommended question – “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” – has been adopted.
A No 10 source said: “The introduction of the EU Referendum Bill is a concrete step towards settling the debate about the UK’s membership of the EU.
“It will pave the way for the British people to have their say for the first time in 40 years on our place in the EU. And as the Prime Minister has said before, it will be an important choice about our country’s destiny.”
Chris Grayling, the new Commons Leader, announced the second reading of the EU Referendum Bill will take place on Tuesday June 9.
French MP Christophe Premat, a member of President Hollande’s Socialist Party, said the referendum could not be used “as a threat”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One: “I think we have a disagreement with the method but we respect the vote. We respect that a referendum will be held in Great Britain, that’s the destiny of the people in the UK. That’s correct.
“But, at the same time, we can’t use the referendum as a threat in order to have more space in the renegotiation. The method should be approached in another way.
“That might be the message of President Hollande to David Cameron tonight.”
Published: Thursday 28th May 2015 by Leo Stevens