David Cameron's hope of renegotiating Britain's membership of the European Union before holding an in/out referendum were dealt a blow today by French president Francois Hollande.
The prime minister is set on changing the EU's treaties to give Britain a looser relationship with Brussels in an attempt to persuade voters to back membership and put the issue to bed.
However speaking at a joint press conference with Cameron on Friday afternoon, Hollande said treaty changes, which require the agreement of all 28 member states, were not an "urgent" requirement. "Revising the treaty is not a priority for the time being," he said.
Cameron insisted that his position remained that there should be "a very clear set of changes" and there "will be a referendum before the end of 2017", despite apparent French opposition.
The prime minister also appeared to be ready to concede defeat over his attempts to get his cherished EU Referendum Bill on the statue book before this May's European elections.
The Bill, which would commit the next government to holding an in/out referendum by the end of 2017, passed the Commons but is in serious danger of being fatally delayed in the Lords by Labour and Lib Dem peers.
"Irrespective of whether this private members Bill succeeds or fails, it makes no difference to this pledge I am making," he said.
Pressed on the difference of opinion over EU reform, Hollande said "the UK is entitled, perfectly free, to organise a referendum to know what their place is going to be in Europe".
The stage was set for a rocky set of talks between the two men today on the issue of Europe, when French officials briefed journalists that it was "very, very unlikely" that any treaty changes could be made to suit the British government's deadline. "It’s in our interests that Britain remains within Europe, but it is not by changing the treaties or rules will negotiate its place in the EU," one official said.
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