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Cameron's EU reform demands leave him with an uphill battle

Britain is due to hold a referendum on EU membership sometime before the end of 2017 Credit: Reuters

If I was writing this two decades ago, the letter David Cameron is writing to the European Council president might have been put in a diplomatic bag and posted a day earlier.

As it happens, the letter will make its way digitally to Donald Tusk today - at about the same time as the prime minister sets out in a speech in central London how he's going to renegotiate Britain's membership of the European Union.

The prime minister will argue he has not embarked on an 'impossible' task as some of his doubters suggest.

In fact, he'll contrast his demands with a much bigger challenge facing Europe's leaders every day: the refugee crisis.

It's quite possible that the prime minister has set the bar deliberately low so that he can come riding back from Brussels with a surprise gift in his hand.

But a significant proportion of Mr Cameron's party want their leader to embark on Mission Impossible.

Eurosceptics are unlikely to be placated by Mr Cameron's reform demands Credit: PA

The Eurosceptics want him to set the bar so high as to make Britain's exit from the EU almost inevitable unless Britain's new relationship is unrecognisable from the one we have now.

They think Mr Cameron is acting like a shopkeeper who has entered the haggling with a customer over a Persian rug with too low a price - just to make the sale.

Aim high, they have been telling him, or you'll get next to nothing in return.

The prime minister's letter to Mr Tusk lays down four 'objectives' (all of which we have heard before).

They are:

  • protect the single market for Britain and others outside the Eurozone.
  • write competitiveness into the DNA of the whole European Union.
  • exempt Britain from an "ever closer union"
  • tackle abuses of the right to free movement, and control migration from the EU

These are changes to which all other 27 EU member states will have to agree.

And many will immediately oppose Mr Cameron's desire to limit benefits in order to make Britain less attractive to EU migrants.

Without them, he can't hope to reduce what's called the 'pull factor' for migrants wanting to come to Britain.

Mr Cameron will lay out his demands in a letter to Donald Tusk (right) Credit: Reuters

So Mr Cameron is therefore set for a very difficult negotiation period.

When will it conclude? Officially at some point between now and the end of 2017.

But senior government ministers are known to want to hold the EU referendum next Autumn (before the 2017 French and German elections start to occupy minds in Paris and Berlin).

You may feel you've heard a lot about this referendum in the last couple of years. But officially, the renegotiation begins today.

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