David Cameron and Francois Hollande at the Swan Inn in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire
David Cameron’s European strategy was unravelling on Friday as the prime minister’s carefully crafted compromise over Britain’s future within the EU was dealt a double blow by the French president and peers in the House of Lords.
François Hollande made it clear at an Anglo-French summit in Oxfordshire that he would not agree to a significant change to the EU treaty this side of the 2017 presidential elections.
As Mr Hollande threatened to disrupt Mr Cameron’s plan for a treaty change in Europe ahead of a promised “in-out” referendum in 2017, Labour and Liberal Democrat peers further undermined the prime minister’s aims by killing off a bill designed to enshrine that pledge in law.
The action by peers incensed eurosceptic Tories, as Conservative headquarters denounced the peers as “enemies of democracy”. Mr Cameron tried to contain the unrest, promising to get behind a fresh backbencher attempt to get an EU referendum bill into law.
But some eurosceptic Conservatives, frustrated by the Lords and incensed by Mr Hollande, moved on to the attack. Mark Pritchard, a backbencher, called on the government to bring forward its own EU referendum bill, regardless of Lib Dem opposition. “A manifesto pledge just may not be enough for some voters,” he said.
“These two events put him under enormous pressure,” said another leading eurosceptic. “He has failed to back MPs on EU referendum legislation except through a risky private members’ bill, while Hollande has reinforced what we all know. He has a mountain to climb to have any hope of repatriating any powers.”
Mr Cameron had hoped to unite his party behind him on Europe in early 2013 when he promised a referendum on EU membership based on a renegotiation and repatriation of powers from Brussels. The prime minister hopes that by getting Britain a “better deal” in Europe, he can campaign in 2017 for an “in” vote.
But his referendum pledge has failed to contain febrile eurosceptic backbenchers who have continued to push Downing Street for further concessions on Europe.
They had bounced the prime minister into backing the private members’ bill, put forward by backbencher James Wharton, to bind him tightly to a promise of an in-out referendum. They have continued to press for more, with 95 MPs this month calling on the prime minister to secure for national parliaments a veto over current and future EU laws.
Meanwhile, Mr Hollande poured cold water on Mr Cameron’s plan for a major change in Britain’s relationship with the EU in an awkward day for the “entente cordiale”.
Making it clear that he has no desire for a new treaty – which could trigger a referendum in France – he said: “If there are going to be amendments to the text, we don’t think for the time being that is urgent. We feel that revisions to the treaty are not a priority.”
The French president’s warning threatens to disrupt Mr Cameron’s plan for a treaty change before his proposed “in-out” EU referendum in 2017 and confirmed the frosty state of relations between the two leaders.