UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Minister Philip Hammond have in the last couple of days publicly questioned whether a deal between the UK and the EU could be sealed at the upcoming February 18-19 European Council meeting — which may not be all that surprising since the EU’s track record is to make decisions close to, and often past, prescribed deadlines.
*** In this case, this careful repositioning by the UK government is mostly tactical and not a signal of elevated confrontation or a breakdown in the talks. For the most part, the EU is willing to meet most of Cameron’s demands (see SGH 1/12/15, “UK Brexit: EU Near Deal with Cameron”). Instead, our sense is that both Cameron and Hammond are warning France and especially Germany not to object too strenuously to the final terms to the deal since a delay in the planned June UK referendum could go against their own interests. ***
Migrants and Schengen
A February agreement is still not to be completely ruled out, but because of the migrant crisis, is looking less likely.
Indeed, the February EU Summit is now likely to be all but aimed at avoiding a two-year suspension of the Schengen free-movement area, an issue that is at the moment considered a priority by Germany and Italy (the summit might actually last an extra day, following Italy’s request).
If the February Council meeting comes and goes without the final terms worked out on the UK proposed legislative reforms, it would push a final agreement into March.
In that, Hammond’s warning that the UK will be unable to organize the referendum for June this year if a deal is not done by March at the very latest is seen in Brussels as giving a precise deadline to Germany and France. London’s calculation is that both countries will be determined to finalize the accord soon enough to allow a June referendum, to avoid dangerously dragging the Brexit issue until 2017, an election year for both countries.
Cameron and Hammond also want to avoid looking too eager and in a frenzy to cut a deal, something that could have a detrimental effect on their negotiating position. At the same time, they still consider June as a sweet spot to hold the referendum.
Instead, even if political talks were to spill over into March, since most of the technical work would then be done, the UK government is confident it can conclude negotiations reasonably fast and in time to celebrate the June referendum.