David Cameron – and the travelling circus of officials and journalists around him – is in Brussels today for that long-awaited European Council summit at which the Prime Minister hopes he can get his EU deal. Bearing in mind that Cameron never really wanted a referendum, let alone to spend months banging on about Europe when he’s interested in so many other things, he must be rather relieved that the renegotiation may be drawing to a close. But these next few hours are, in the Prime Minister’s mind, a ‘very sensitive point’ in the negotiations. He is likely to encounter attempts from some quarters to water down what is already a rather weak-tasting deal. He is likely to have to deal with drama from others, including the French. And he still needs to deal with a series of outstanding issues.
These issues are treaty change for an exemption from ‘ever closer union’ and protections for the City of London, protections for non-eurozone countries, and the details of the emergency brake on migrant benefits. The brake is largely unimpressive, but since Cameron has made such a fuss of it as his retail offer from the negotiations, he can’t afford for it to become an even less impressive mechanism. There are threats that it could only apply to new claimants, and questions about how long the brake can be applied for.
If Cameron doesn’t get his deal at this summit, leaders can call an emergency meeting in the next few weeks to continue hammering out a deal. If he does, he’s expected to whisk back to London for a Cabinet meeting where ministers will be presented with the deal – and their freedom. Then the travelling circus will be less interested in how good a brake that brake is and more in whether ministers – in particular Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – are going to back Cameron’s deal, or campaign to leave. James reveals in his column this week that there is some effort from Downing Street to stop Cabinet ministers from leaving Number 10 and announcing their stance to waiting reporters outside, but the Leave campaigners already in place are desperate to get going with their big beasts, not least because it distracts from some of the internecine bickering that has taken place over the past few weeks. And once ministers are free to campaign, the talks and wranglings of the past few days are likely to look a bit pointless, as the referendum will be fought far more on the benefits or otherwise of EU membership, rather than anything Cameron brings back from Brussels.