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David Cameron set to meet EC chief in Brussels for EU reform talks

Published 27/01/2016

Campaign group Migration Watch UK claims Britain could slash net migration by more than 100,000 a year if it leaves the EU.
Campaign group Migration Watch UK claims Britain could slash net migration by more than 100,000 a year if it leaves the EU.

David Cameron has scrapped a planned visit to Scandinavia so he can travel to Brussels for talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker as his planned renegotiation of Britain's EU membership enters a crucial period.

The Prime Minister cancelled meetings with his counterparts in Sweden and Denmark to meet Mr Juncker on Friday for talks, weeks before European Union leaders consider his demands for reforms.

Downing Street denied that the PM's hastily rearranged plans were a sign of panic over whether he will be able to secure a deal on his reform agenda at a European Council summit in the Belgian capital on February 18-19, and pave the way for the in/out referendum he has promised by the end of 2017.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Tuesday that it will be "much more difficult" to stage the referendum before the summer if no agreement is reached in February, and "impossible" if there is no deal at a later summit in March.

Mr Hammond acknowledged that Britain's demands were "not number one on the European agenda" for its EU partners.

European Council president Donald Tusk has said he will produce a paper ahead of the summit, outlining "concrete proposals" on Britain's concerns about sovereignty, migration, competitiveness and protections for non-eurozone states.

A senior Number 10 source declined to say whether Mr Cameron or Mr Juncker had requested Friday's meeting, saying only: "As you would expect, as we get closer to the February Council, there are meetings to be held with some of the people most closely involved in the process, such as President Juncker.

"The opportunity for a meeting on Friday has come up, so we are taking that opportunity."

The source insisted the last-minute addition of a meeting with the EC president was "absolutely" a positive development.

Asked whether it reflected concern that the timetable for agreement may be slipping, the PM's official spokeswoman said: " Across Europe, we are seeing leaders - whether in the institutions or other countries - clear that they want to see a deal secured in February.

"The ambition is there. There's clearly more work to do. The PM has said many times that what matters most is that we get the substance right and fix the problems and concerns of the British people."

Meanwhile, a senior Brussels official insisted that the European Commission would not publish propaganda about the benefits of EU membership in the run-up to the vote but would "continue to inform citizens" about its work.

Jonathan Faull, who is leading the commission's work on Mr Cameron's demands for a new deal, came under pressure about the role the Brussels bureaucracy will play - and the taxpayers' money it will spend - in promoting the benefits of EU membership ahead of the in/out vote.

He insisted the commission will "continue to inform citizens" but will not "participate actively" or finance campaigns in the referendum.

Ukip MEP Roger Helmer said: "It is an affront to democracy for foreign institutions to spend taxpayers' money in Britain seeking to influence the outcome of a British referendum," and added he did not believe Mr Faull's assurance that the commission would not produce propaganda.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage tweeted: "I anticipate a wall of European Commission money flooding UK masquerading as 'information', as happened in Ireland."

Mr Faull told a meeting of MEPs from the EFDD (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy) group, which includes Ukip: "T he commission will not spend a penny on propaganda in the referendum campaign.

"We do not intend to indulge in propaganda at all - I don't think we ever do, by the way - and ... we have no intention of participating directly in any referendum campaign.

"We never do, and the United Kingdom will not be different from previous ones."

But he added: "Of course, the normal business of the European Union will continue and of course the United Kingdom remains a member state of the European Union throughout this period - and I hope for a very long period thereafter."

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