Last updated: December 14, 2012 9:04 pm

Hollande snubs UK on return of powers

Britain should not be allowed to repatriate powers it has surrendered to the EU, the French president has warned, saying London’s membership commitments were “for life”.

François Hollande bluntly rejected the British prime minister’s goal of eventually clawing back some UK powers as the eurozone moves toward deeper integration, saying Paris would not tolerate “Europe à la carte”.

“To repatriate? Usually when a country commits, it’s for life,” Mr Hollande told reporters next door to where Mr Cameron was giving his own post-summit briefing on the opportunities to reset Britain’s relations with Brussels. “I believe the treaties are meant to be respected.”

Mr Hollande’s comments give the clearest indication yet that Paris will seek to frustrate Mr Cameron’s chief objective of rebalancing Britain’s relationship with the EU.

The British prime minister is determined to do so in order to assuage an increasingly powerful current of euroscepticism coursing through the UK electorate.

The move towards deeper economic and money integration among the 17 nations that comprise the eurozone – the subject of the Brussels summit – has created an opportune moment to re-set the terms of the UK’s EU membership, particularly in areas such as social policy and fisheries.

“The existence of the euro is driving change in Europe. It is driving countries that are inside the euro to integrate more, to co-ordinate more,” Mr Cameron said.

“It will lead to opportunities for us in the UK to make changes in our relationship with the European Union that will suit us better, which the British people will feel more comfortable about.”

Mr Cameron, who is preparing to make a speech on Britain’s relations with the EU, is likely to pledge that a “new deal” is put to the people in a referendum, should he win the 2015 election.

Mr Hollande conceded that the UK and others should not be forced to embrace deeper integration if they did not wish to do so, saying: “I understand that some countries might not be willing to join new steps.”

But the French president drew a line at national governments selectively reclaiming powers already granted to Brussels: “Europe is not a Europe in which you can take back some competencies,” he said.

Hours later, Downing Street rejected Mr Hollande’s claim that repatriation was impossible. “There’s no clause written down anywhere that says this can’t be done,” one Number 10 source said.

The rebuke from Mr Hollande will come as a reality check for some Tory euroscpetics, who have confidently predicted that threatening to leave the EU will strengthen Mr Cameron’s bargaining position in winning back sovereignty. Some Tory MPs argue that EU members will bow to Britain’s demands because of their overwhelming interest in maintaining strong trading relations with London.

Britain this week secured some safeguards against the eurozone’s nascent banking union, which Mr Cameron sees as an important precedent for ensuring that those outside the tightly integrated eurozone project do not lose their influence or face discrimination with the EU single market.

However, these primarily regarded the rules relating to setting technical standards for banks and did not represent any return of sovereignty. Any demand for repatriation is likely to be made during a treaty change negotiation, which EU officials believe is essential to complete the monetary union but is unlikely to be on the Brussels agenda until after 2014.

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