EU Referendum

Britain heading for early referendum on whether to quit the EU after Jean-Claude Juncker drops hint that deal on terms of its membership has been made behind closed doors

  • EU president Jean-Claude Juncker declared he is ‘sure’ a deal will be made
  • But when asked, he refused to explain why he was so confident of a deal
  • His coy retort led to speculation it has been agreed behind closed doors
  • If so, a public agreement in February would lead to an early referendum

The European Commission president today declared he was ‘quite sure’ a deal will be reached on Britain’s renegotiation of its membership of the European Union next month.

Mr Juncker refused to explain when asked why he was so confident EU leaders will finalise a settlement at a summit in less than five weeks’ time, cryptically stating: ‘My knowledge is allowing me to tell you that.’

Jean-Claude Juncker (pictured) has said he was 'quite sure' a deal will be done to renegotiate Britain's EU membership terms, leading to speculation the terms have already been agreed behind closed doors

At his New Year’s press conference in Brussels, the former prime minister of Luxembourg said: ‘I am quite sure that we’ll have a deal – not a compromise, a solution, a permanent solution – in February.’

An agreement by leaders at the European Council meeting on 18 and 19 February would pave the way for David Cameron to call an early referendum in June.

His comments echoed those of George Osborne who last night told BBC Newsnight: ‘I’m pretty optimistic. I see the essential pieces of the deal falling into place.’

The Chancellor came under fire after appearing to rule out any future referendums on Europe if Britain votes to stay in the EU.

Mr Osborne said the coming vote was a ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to have a say, adding: ‘There’s no second vote. This is the crucial decision of our lifetimes. Do we stay in the EU, a reformed EU, or do we leave?’

Tory MEP Daniel Hannan said the comments suggested the Government’s ‘referendum lock’ which requires a vote on any EU treaty change, was now dead.

He added: ‘We are gearing up for the Government saying, “if we get a vote to stay in, we will treat that as a mandate for a generation”. So people had better be very clear… if we vote to stay, that is it – we are one the bus and there is no way off.’

Ministers also faced criticism over revelations in today’s Daily Mail they are prepared to agree to a German proposal that would see EU migrants on the minimum wage barred from claiming tax credits and benefits, provided low-paid British workers are subject to the same restrictions.

George Osborne echoed Mr Juncker's comments, but came under fire for appearing to rule out any future referendums if Britain votes to remain in the EU

Tory MP Andrew Percy described the plan as ‘very concerning’. He added: ‘The Government must not do a deal on EU benefits that hits our own citizens, especially the poorest.’

Downing Street denied that a deal had already been ‘stitched up’ with other EU leaders ahead of next month’s summit. A spokesman said negotiations were ‘continuing’.

But Matthew Elliott, chief Executive of Vote Leave, said ministers were ‘focused more on managing expectations than fighting for a good deal for Britain’.

He added: ‘The renegotiation has focused on a trivial set of demands that David Cameron knows the EU will agree to, so it’s not surprising Juncker is confident of a deal next month.’

Ukip leader Nigel Farage said: ‘Mr Juncker confirmed that if you ask for very little you are likely to get it. Let’s just accept fundamental reform is not an offer and get on with the campaign.’

Mr Juncker today insisted that Mr Cameron’s demands for reforms were all ‘very, very difficult’.

‘The issues put on the table by the British prime minister are all difficult issues,’ he said.

‘Don’t think there is one issue which would be particularly difficult – although it is and that’s the welfare issue – and that the other points mentioned by the British will be less important, and easy. They are not,” he said.

‘Even ever-closer union, the role of national parliaments, the relations between the ins and the outs in the euro system, all these are very, very difficult issues and we have to work hard in these days to come to agreements.’

Mr Cameron’s most controversial proposal is a four-year ban on benefits for EU migrants working in Britain, which critics say is discriminatory and threatens freedom of movement in the EU.

Mr Juncker said people ‘get upset’ about the question over Britain’s membership, as he listed it as one of the major challenges facing the EU this year.

‘We have the issue of the UK. Not much is said about it – people get upset about it,’ he said.

Mr Juncker also used the press conference to defend the EU’s shambolic handling of the migrant crisis.,

‘It’s not the Commission that has not delivered, but a number of member states have failed to fully deliver on what we need to do and what needs to be done,’ he said.

He warned Europe was damaging its reputation around the world with its reluctance to take in asylum seekers.

Border controls re-introduced between countries in the Schengen passport-free travel-zone could ultimately lead to the collapse of the euro and ‘an unemployment problem which will not be manageable any more,’ he also warned.

Mr Juncker said the collapse of Schengen would cost the EU 3billion euros a year, including by making it harder for lorry drivers to take goods between countries.

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