Stopping EU nationals from receiving benefits will be a red line in David Cameron’s drive to renegotiate Britain’s place in the 28-nation bloc, he said ahead of the launch of discussions leading to a membership referendum.
The Prime Minister, making his first foreign visit since his election victory, will start outlining his demands when he meets other EU leaders including Angela Merkel and François Hollande at a summit in Latvia. He will tell them he has received a mandate from the voters for sweeping reform of Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Before flying to Latvia, Mr Cameron warned that the negotiations would be difficult and time-consuming, but insisted a deal could be struck to “address the concerns of the British people and improve the EU as a whole”.
The Tory manifesto contained a commitment to hold the referendum by the end of 2017, although there have been growing suggestions that it could be held next year to end the uncertainty over the question.
Mr Cameron’s comments indicated he was playing down the chances of an early vote, although diplomats insisted they are still keeping all options open.
The Prime Minister put tough action on immigration from within the EU – over which member states have little control – at the heart of his agenda for wresting power back from Brussels.
He was speaking as fresh figures showed migration surging to near-record levels, much of it driven by new arrivals from other European countries.
Mr Cameron said the figures showed that 86,000 EU nationals came to Britain last year to look for work rather than take up a job offer, citing it as evidence that the principle of freedom of movement was being abused. He said some European leaders agreed with him that the prospect of receiving benefits in another country should not be a driving force behind migration.
He is pressing for tax credits and child benefits to be paid only to EU nationals who have worked in Britain for four years, to ban them from social housing for four years and stop jobseekers from claiming any benefits. He also wants Britain to gain the power to deport unemployed EU jobseekers after six months.
“I and many others believe it is right for us to reduce the incentives for people who want to come here. Changes to welfare to cut EU migration will be an absolute requirement in my renegotiation,” he said in a speech at the Home Office.
“Freedom of movement was always supposed to be the freedom of movement to go and take a job, and that is the freedom of movement I support.”
Mr Cameron is likely to win allies in Western Europe for benefit changes, notably the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He received a fillip when the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said there was a “huge interest” in Britain remaining in the EU and disclosed he had invited the Chancellor, George Osborne, to Berlin to discuss the Government’s demands.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal and French daily Les Echos, Mr Schäuble suggested London would get support from Berlin during the negotiations.
“You know I stand in close contact with George Osborne. It’s no secret and, at least for me, nothing to be ashamed of,” he said.
“There’s considerable interest not just in Germany but in the whole of Europe in discussing all the questions that the UK wants to discuss, with a view to finding a good solution because we have a huge interest in the UK remaining a strong and engaged member of the European Union.”
While Romanian immigrants have perhaps been among the most contentious of EU migrants, officials in Bucharest say they would still be willing to negotiate tighter rules on welfare payments for the unemployed. “The vast majority of Romanians in Britain are not beggars anyway – they are doctors and businessmen,” said one official. “We are happy to work on a win-win solution to this issue.”
EU officials accept there is scope to amend rules on access to either unemployment or in-work benefits. “We are ready to work with the UK on new arrangements, but they have to be consistent with EU treaty law,” said one European Commission official.
However, the Prime Minister is certain to run into opposition from leaders in central and Eastern Europe. Poland has denounced the mooted benefit restrictions as “discriminatory” and warned they could be blocked on the grounds they breach EU laws.
France has also set its face against the changes to EU treaties which Britain believes are essential to address public concerns over immigration levels.
Legal experts said that restricting access to in-work benefits would discriminate against immigrant workers, and run up against the EU’s free-movement rules.
“Changes to in-work benefits would require treaty change, since they would in effect skew labour markets in favour of domestic workers,” said John Springford, senior research fellow at the London-based Centre for European Reform think-tank.
The Government’s demands will be discussed when EU leaders meet in the Latvian capital Riga for the two-yearly summit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership.
Its formal agenda is dominated by relations with former Soviet nations, but Mr Cameron confirmed he would use talks in the summit’s margins to make the case for change.
Mr Cameron said before heading to Latvia: “I will start discussions in earnest with fellow leaders on reforming the EU and renegotiating the UK’s relationship with it.
“These talks will not be easy. They will not be quick. There will be different views and disagreements along the way. 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. After all we are not alone in wanting to make the EU work better for people across Europe. And that is what I’m determined to do.”
Additional reporting by Leo Cendrowicz