David Cameron is to launch a major diplomatic push today to secure a June referendum, as plans emerged in Brussels to end Britain’s ability to deport thousands of failed asylum seekers.
Jean-Claude Juncker’s office is preparing to tear up the “Dublin” rules that dictate asylum seekers must stay in the first European country they step foot in. The influx of a million migrants via Greece to Germany has rendered them a farce, and the Financial Times reported that EU officials are planning to abandon them within months.
Such a move would be present Downing Street a bruising battle in the middle of the renegotiation. The current rules allow Britain to deport around a thousand failed asylum seekers a year to other EU states.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has said the immigration crisis has left the rules “obsolete”.
There is a growing belief in David Cameron’s senior team that his renegotiation will be finalised in February, allowing the referendum to be held at the beginning of the summer.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council who is chairing the talks in Brussels, said he will send a “concrete proposal for a deal” to EU leaders within weeks, ahead of a final deal being struck at a decisive summit in mid-February.
Downing Street indicated this would swiftly open the door to the referendum, which requires a 16-week campaign period by law.
“We are going to be driven by substance not schedule. Then he will set out the timings for the referendum,” said Mr Cameron’s spokeswoman. “But a deal in February would pave the way for getting on with this.”
Sources say Downing Street fears the “optics” of the migration crisis this summer – such as bodies being washed ashore or fences being torn down – on television news could boost the ‘out’ campaign.
“The result of the referendum is more unpredictable than ever before,” Mr Tusk said. “Time is of the essence here.”
With thousands of migrants arriving every, Mr Tusk warned the Schengen zone could collapse within weeks unless the borders are secured. As many as four million people could arrive by the end of 2017, experts now believe.
“We have no more than two months to get things under control,” he said. “The March European Council will be the last moment to see if our strategy works. If it doesn’t we will face grave consequences such as the collapse of Schengen.”
Mr Cameron will launch an intense final push to secure a deal as he joined European leaders at the World Economic Forum at the Swiss resort of Davos from this afternoon until Friday.
Attendees include Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, and Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank. Mr Cameron will hold private meetings and address delegates.
Mr Cameron will also continue the talks with EU leaders at a conference on the Syria conflict in London early next month.
The news came as six Labour MPs wrote to The Daily Telegraph urging Britons to back the campaign to leave the EU. The Eurosceptic Labour Leave campaign launches today.
In the letter the MPs – Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Graham Stringer, Khalid Mahmood, Roger Godsiff and Ronnie Campbell – urged Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to “challenge” the renegotiation.
They said they wanted to “to put pressure on the leadership to allow a free vote on our membership of the EU” adding that “most grass-roots Labour supporters want significant changes to the EU”.
Christ Grayling, the Leader of the House who is poised to play a leading role in the Out campaign, said the “incredible flow of migration that just continues day by day, week by week” is a major challenge for Britain.
“It will be everybody in Cabinet to judge and for the country as a whole to judge because ultimately we are only one vote – it is for the country as a whole to judge whether the renegotiated package, whether the agreement that the Prime Minister eventually reaches on matters relating to migration is enough to make people come towards staying in the European Union or not.”
There were angry exchanges in Strasbourg as MEPs discussed British proposals.
Manfred Weber, a German conservative who is close to Angela Merkel, criticised Mr Cameron’s demand to be exempted from the principle of ‘ever closer union’, and suggested the Prime Minister does not understand that it is about people rather than institutions.
Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal bloc, said the “cold” British government is to blame for the Calais migrant camp because it is refusing entry to those seeking to join their families in Britain, and accused Ukip MEPs of hankering after the British empire.
He said the British renegotiation should be scrapped from the agenda in February to focus solely on the refugee crisis. “It could very well be the case that we find a way out of the Brexit issue and Britain remains in the European Union, while at the same time finding ourselves without a European Union,” he said. Mr Tusk rejected that, and said the British issue would be settled once and for all then.
Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party leader, told MEPs that British voters fear North African migrants will get European passports and the right of free movement within years.
After a spate of sexual assaults in Germany, the referendum will be “about the safety and security of British women”, he said.