British Prime Minister David Cameron takes his case for far-reaching reform to his EU peers Friday as they meet six former Soviet states, some of whom would gladly swap places with London in the bloc.
The Eastern Partnership summit in the Latvian capital Riga aims to review and affirm ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and especially war-torn Ukraine, whose future is overshadowing the talks.
But Cameron arrives fresh from an unexpected election victory, ahead of which he pledged to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and an “in-out” referendum on the bloc in 2017.
“Today I will start discussions in earnest with fellow leaders on reforming the EU and renegotiating the UK’s relationship with it,” Cameron said in comments released by his Downing Street office ahead of his arrival in Riga in the early hours of Friday.
“These talks will not be easy, but by working together in the right spirit and sticking at it, I believe we can find solutions that will address the concerns of the British people and improve the EU as a whole.”
As they arrived for the summit dinner Thursday, EU leaders were repeatedly asked what they would say to Cameron on Friday in their first meeting since the May 7 election.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel made no comment, while French President Francois Hollande responded with a terse: “Oh, I do not think that is this evening’s subject.”
“This is not a meeting concerning UK membership,” said European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, who will be a key figure in the negotiations.
Cameron backs staying in the European Union as long as Britain can secure a string of reforms, which he has yet to spell out.
Regaining control of immigration is the prime minister’s red line, but while Juncker has previously said he is ready to work for “a fair deal” with Britain, key EU principles such as freedom of movement were non-negotiable.
– Cameron steals headlines –
While Cameron may steal the headlines, EU leaders are first and foremost in Riga for the Eastern Partnership summit, wanting to reaffirm their promise of greater political and economic cooperation with six countries once ruled from Moscow.
But they do not want to make tensions worse with Russia, which sees the Eastern Partnership project as a direct threat in its backyard.
Merkel tried to strike a balance Thursday when she said neither the former Soviet states nor the EU should expect too much, while warning Russia it had to reverse course in Ukraine if it wanted to return to the G7 club of top nations.
“The Eastern Partnership is not aimed against anyone, especially not against Russia,” Merkel told the German parliament before leaving for Riga.
It is also “not an instrument” of EU enlargement, she said, adding: “We must not therefore arouse false expectations which we cannot later fulfil.”
The last summit in November 2013 in Vilnius ended in chaos when Ukraine’s then president, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, baulked at signing an EU association accord alongside Georgia and Moldova.
His refusal sparked massive protests that led to his ouster in February 2014, followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine with pro-Russian rebels.
Ukraine’s current pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko completed the association agreement last year and wants ultimately to join the EU.
Also hogging the limelight in Riga was Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who held debt talks with the leaders of France and Germany in Riga on Thursday, but gave no sign of a breakthrough on its repayments ahead of a crucial June deadline.
Merkel, Hollande and Tsipras “focused on the desire to reach an agreement on the current programme” to support Greece’s finances, an aide to the French leader said.