Cameron’s call for EU reform on agenda for talks during Merkel’s visit

David Cameron will on Wednesday host Angela Merkel at Downing Street amid signs of rising concern in Berlin over the prime minister’s demand for treaty changes.

In a joint statement ahead of the German chancellor’s visit, which will include a tour of the British Museum’s German history exhibition with its director, Neil MacGregor, the two leaders said they were committed to advancing a common agenda for making the EU more competitive.

But Downing Street confirmed that Merkel and Cameron would use their first substantive bilateral talks since the prime minister’s speech on EU immigration at the end of November to discuss his plans to reform the EU ahead of a planned UK referendum in 2017.

Their talks come as concerns arise in Berlin about Cameron setting the bar on EU reforms unrealistically high after having insisted over the weekend that he would demand “full-on” treaty change.

The statement is being seen in Berlin as a hardening of the prime minister’s position shown in his Bloomberg speech in January 2013 when he set out plans for a referendum, by the end of 2017, in which he simply said that a new treaty would be the best way of achieving reforms.

British sources say that the renewed pressure on the euro will increase the chances of a revision of the Lisbon treaty because Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, supports a change in the law to underpin closer economic harmonisation of the eurozone.

Any revision of the treaty would allow the prime minister to place on the table his demand for a UK opt-out from the EU’s commitment to deliver an ever closer union of the peoples, as well as a guarantee ensuring eurozone members cannot unilaterally rewrite the EU’s single market rules, and new rules to allow Britain to make it all but impossible for EU jobseekers to settle in Britain without work to go to.

Berlin believes that it is highly unlikely Schäuble will realise his dream of treaty change in the foreseeable future because Germany has failed to win support in other key eurozone member states for change.

The French president, François Hollande, who is facing immense political pressure ahead of the May 2017 presidential elections from the highly eurosceptic Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, is unlikely to agree to a treaty change that would probably trigger a referendum in France.

Germany, which was encouraged when Cameron abandoned plans in his speech in November to rewrite the rules on the free movement of people throughout the EU, is understood to believe that many of his reform plans could be agreed without treaty change. Reforms could be achieved through secondary legislation or by altering the implementation of EU directives in national law.

Eyebrows were, though, raised in Berlin at the prime minister’s suggestion in his speech that EU jobseekers without a job offer should effectively be barred from settling in the EU.

The European commission believes that proposal, which states that jobseekers without a job would be deported after six months, during which they would be denied access to benefits, would infringe laws on free movement.

Mateusz Szczurek, the Polish foreign minister, warned on Tuesday that tampering with the free movement of people risked destroying the eurozone and then the EU. Speaking at a conference organised by the Liberal group in the European parliament, Szczurek said: “If we start hearing about things like freedom of movement of labour being questioned – if that happens this is the end of the eurozone for sure because it cannot function without it. And the EU probably would be likely to follow.”

Peter Wilding, director of the British Influence group, which backs the EU, criticised Cameron for alienating European allies with his demands for treaty change. Wilding, a former Tory official in Brussels, said: “David Cameron must ignore the Europhobes and stop ratcheting up his rhetoric on EU reforms. Demands for treaty change and threats of Brexit won’t win back a single Ukip vote and will only alienate powerful allies like [Angela] Merkel, who are determined to keep Britain in the EU but won’t take kindly to blackmail.

“We can get the changes to the immigration system that we need – to restrict access to benefits and secure fair competition- without changing the treaties. Many other European countries have stricter immigration controls than us and yet are fully engaged in Europe.”

The Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder said: “Threatening to tear up free movement in the EU would leave Britain isolated and jeopardise the economic recovery. David Cameron must stop preaching and start building alliances. Uncertainty about our future in Europe would do the British economy untold harm.”

Downing Street said that the prime minister had not altered his position between his Bloomberg speech, in which his only mention of immigrants was the hundreds of thousands of UK citizens who lived in other EU countries, and his speech last November. The prime minister’s spokesman said: “In the Bloomberg speech the prime minister said he expected treaty change. The view hasn’t changed, the view you hear including in Berlin of course. The German finance minister has also talked of the need for treaty change as a result of the challenges that the eurozone has had.”

In his Bloomberg speech the prime minister said: “I believe the best way to do this [reform the EU] will be in a new treaty, so I add my voice to those who are already calling for this. My strong preference is to enact these changes for the entire EU, not just for Britain. But if there is no appetite for a new treaty for us all then of course Britain should be ready to address the changes we need in a negotiation with our European partners.”

In an interview on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sunday, he said: “The changes that we need are changes that are good for Britain and good for Europe. They do involve treaty change and proper, full-on, treaty change for that matter.”

Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister who recently met senior officials in Berlin, warned that Merkel would be highly cautious over treaty change. In an article for Progress, he wrote of the prime minister’s weekend remarks, saying: “Just days before her visit, Cameron seemed to suggest that, regardless of the views of other member states, he wanted ‘full-on’ treaty change and wanted it possibly before 2017.

“So it should come as no surprise to him if Angela Merkel uses her time in London to make clear there is a limit to how far Germany will go to help keep the UK in Europe while Cameron continues to play internal politics over our membership of the EU.”