A senior Brussels figure urged David Cameron not to resort to “blackmailing ” the European Union by threatening that Britain would leave unless it wins big changes before the in/out referendum.
Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, who held talks with Mr Cameron in Downing Street, appealed to him to stand up to his Eurosceptic backbenchers, avoid an anti-Brussels “blame game” and to sell the EU’s benefits to the public.
Speaking to journalists after his meeting, the German Social Democrat said he was optimistic that “common ground” could be found between Britain and its EU partners but suggested there was little appetite in other member states for rewriting the EU’s governing treaties. Mr Cameron is seeking treaty change to make EU migrants wait four years before claiming tax credits and to halt the EU’s commitment to “ever closer union.”
In a speech in London, Mr Schulz warned that there could be retaliatory measures against Britons living in countries like Spain if the UK created new barriers to EU migrants.
He told the National Institute for Economic and Social Research: “Let us not forget: freedom of movement is a two-way movement. More than 2m UK citizens are living in other European countries –800,000 in Spain….Should their free movement be restricted, too? Should they be excluded from social benefits, too?”
Calling for a “fact-based debate” on free movement, Mr Schulz criticised those who are “stirring a feeling of panic over so-called benefit tourists from Romania and Bulgaria wanting to plunder the social security systems of the host countries.” He added: “Facts are twisted. Sweeping generalisations are made. Outright lies are told…repeated again and again until people start to believe them. What makes me sad and angry in all this debate is the undertone of national resentment. Hatred is spread. People are used as scapegoats.”
Mr Cameron’s official spokeswoman said there had been a “free-flowing, open-minded discussion” with Mr Schulz over an hour-long working breakfast.
There was better news for Mr Cameron when he met Enda Kenny, his Irish counterpart, who said: “It is critically important that Britain stays a central and leading player in the EU of the future," he said. "In that we will be as supportive and as constructive as we can. It doesn't mean we will follow you blindly on every issue.”