Could David Cameron have to delay his European renegotiation still further? In his press conference today with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the Tory leader said that ‘if it takes longer to make an agreement then obviously what matters to me is the substance rather than the timing’.
Cameron and his senior colleagues had been confident of reaching an agreement on Britain’s new relationship with Europe at February’s European Council summit, but it may be that it is not finally signed off before the March meeting of EU leaders. This would push the referendum back to at least July, which is a difficult month because of Scottish school holidays.
The reason Cameron was talking about the importance of substance over timing today is that though Orban and other leaders have made repeated noises about their desire to help Britain, they have also made clear that they are not particularly keen on the Prime Minister’s proposals to ban migrants from receiving benefits for the first four years of working in the UK. Orban said today that there would be a ‘solution that is going to be suitable for the Hungarian employees’, but that the current proposals were ‘difficult’. His remarks about not regarding Hungarians coming to the UK as ‘parasites’ have received the most attention, but the impact of his comments on the general timetable of the renegotiation is important too.
This benefits fight is only useful to Cameron in that it gives the impression that he’s had to push hard for changes to Britain’s relationship – and that is only useful if he wins the fight.