David Cameron will set the stage for a battle with some of Britain’s traditional EU allies and with Eurosceptic cabinet ministers when he finally outlines his EU reform plans in writing for the first time.
The prime minister will reject claims that he has embarked on “mission impossible” as he sets out “eminently resolvable” reforms across four areas in a letter to the president of the European council, Donald Tusk.
Under pressure from EU leaders, who demanded to see the details of his reforms in writing in advance of an EU summit next week, the prime minister will outline the broad principles of his proposed package of EU reforms in a speech in central London on Tuesday, shortly before his letter to Tusk is formally published by parliament. David Lidington, the Europe minister, will then make a statement to MPs at around 12.30pm.
Speaking after he was heckled by anti-EU campaigners at the CBI’s annual conference on Monday, the prime minister will say: “When you look at the challenges facing European leaders today, the changes that Britain is seeking do not fall in the box marked ‘impossible’. They are eminently resolvable, with the requisite political will and political imagination. The European Union has a record of solving intractable problems. It can solve this one. Let us therefore resolve to do so.”
But he will trigger a row with Britain’s traditional allies in eastern Europe, led by Poland, when he says that the EU must deliver his manifesto commitment to ban EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits and child benefit for four years.
Cameron will say that the changes must “tackle abuses of the right to free movement, and enable us to control migration from the European Union, in line with my manifesto”.
This refers to the section of the Tories’ general election manifesto which said: “Changes to welfare to cut EU migration will be an absolute requirement in the renegotiation. We have already banned housing benefit for EU jobseekers, and restricted other benefits, including jobseeker’s allowance. We will insist that EU migrants who want to claim tax credits and child benefit must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years.”
Poland has rejected any restrictions on in-work benefits on the grounds that this would discriminate against non-UK EU citizens in general and against eastern European citizens in particular, who overwhelmingly choose to work in the UK.
Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, highlighted the challenge at the Tory conference when he said it would be “very very difficult” to press for any change that appeared to question the EU’s historic commitment to guarantee the free movement of people.
Cameron will face resistance on another front from Eurosceptic cabinet ministers. They are understood to be arguing that it is disingenuous of him to argue that his plan to restrict in-work benefits would control migration into the UK because they say that the reform can only be achieved by “whacking” UK citizens.
Downing Street is arguing in Whitehall that Cameron can achieve this reform in Brussels on the grounds that his 27 fellow EU leaders should accept that the restrictions on benefits were included in his election-winning manifesto. But he is being warned in his EU cabinet subcommittee that countries such as Poland will never agree to amend the Lisbon treaty to introduce this change.
A failure to win agreement among EU leaders will mean that Cameron may have to decide that the restrictions should also apply to UK citizens to avoid charges of discrimination. Eyebrows have been raised after Max Chambers, one of the prime minister’s special advisers, said that a residency test could be introduced. This would mean that no EU citizen could claim in-work benefits until they have lived in the UK for four years and no UK citizen could claim in-work benefits until four years into adulthood.
The residency test is seen as more benign to UK citizens than the alternative of restricting access to in-work benefits until UK and EU citizens have worked for four years. This “contributory principle” is supported by Eurosceptic cabinet ministers such as Iain Duncan Smith.
This contingent of cabinet ministers will support the prime minister for now, though they believe his proposed reforms lack ambition. They had hoped he would press for greater power for individual national parliaments over EU law.
The three other reforms, to be outlined by the prime minister in his letter to Tusk, are seen as less controversial than the change to the benefits system:
- Protection for the UK and other countries outside the eurozone to ensure that they cannot have rules for the single market imposed by eurozone countries. The prime minister will say: “What I mean by that is a set of binding principles that guarantee fairness between euro and non-euro countries.”
- To “write competitiveness into the DNA of the whole European Union … This includes cutting the total burden on business.”
- Exempting Britain from the EU’s founding principle to forge an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe and to instead bolster the role of national parliaments. He will say this cannot be achieved “through warm words but through legally binding and irreversible changes”.
The prime minister will say in his speech: “I have set out today the changes I want to see, and which Britain needs to see. There will be those who say – here and elsewhere in the EU – that we are embarked on mission impossible. I say: ‘Why?’ I do not deny that seeking changes which require the agreement of 27 other democracies, all with their own concerns, is a big task. But an impossible one? I do not believe so for a minute.”
Cameron will make clear that he must secure a legally binding commitment from EU leaders if he is to recommend a yes vote in his referendum which must be held by the end of 2017. He wants to secure a protocol, to be lodged at the UN, which will say that most of his reforms will be entrenched in the next major revision of the Lisbon treaty.
Dominic Cummings, campaign cirector of Vote Leave, said: “David Cameron promised fundamental reform but what he’s asking for is trivial - he’s given up before he’s started.
“The public wants the end of the supremacy of EU law and to take back control of our economy, our borders, and our democracy. The only way to do this is to vote leave - we won’t get it by trusting Cameron.”
Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary, will make clear that he agrees with many of the reforms, particularly the protections for non-Euro members, but warn that Britain must not marginalise itself.
Mandelson will say: “I thought the outline proposals set out by the chancellor in Berlin last week to deal with this risk were broadly right. But I have a real nervousness about any suggestion that Britain might become a second-tier EU member because I know from experience that with this relegation comes less and less influence inside the EU. That is not good for Britain.
“There is no point in being in a club and then implying that as we only want to use some of the facilities, we are in principle happy to be treated as second class or associate members - especially when we still pay the full membership fee.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010