David Cameron is to make a final push at an EU summit next week to win agreement for a four-year ban on EU migrants claiming in-work benefits, in the hope that fellow leaders show more flexibility than officials who have dismissed the proposal.
As the European council president, Donald Tusk, warned that uncertainty over the UK’s future in the EU is destabilising Europe, UK government sources said Cameron wants to “eyeball” EU leaders before making a final decision on whether to compromise.
The prime minister will insist at the two-day summit in Brussels that the four-year ban lies at the heart of his plan to win round UK voters before his proposed EU referendum, which is due before the end of 2017.
Cameron is hoping that EU leaders, most of whom are keen to ensure the UK remains in the EU, will show more flexibility than their “sherpa” officials, who have rejected his proposed restrictions on in-work benefits.
If leaders still resist the plan at the summit next week, he will have to decide whether to water down the proposal when Tusk seeks to finalise the negotiations at a second summit in February. Under one compromise plan being examed in No 10, Cameron could avoid charges that he discriminating against EU citizens by imposing the four-year ban on young people in the UK as well.
Tusk said the ban proposal was proving to be the most difficult element in the prime minister’s renegotiation plan, which has led the Polish politician to conclude that a final deal cannot be agreed next week. In a letter to the EU’s 28 leaders, Tusk said the UK’s demands are difficult, though he expressed confidence that a concrete proposal could be adopted at the next summit in February.
“Uncertainty about the future of the UK in the European Union is a destabilising factor. That is why we must find a way to answer the British concerns as quickly as possible,” he said. On Cameron’s four demands, Tusk added:
- Welfare reforms are the “most delicate” of the prime minister’s proposals. “There is presently no consensus on the request that people coming to Britain from the EU must live there and contribute for four years before they qualify for in-work benefits or social housing.”
- There is already agreement that the EU’s commitment to create an “ever closer union of the peoples of Europe” allows for “various paths of integration”. The prime minister wants Britain to be given a legally binding commitment, embedded in EU treaty change, that this does not apply to the UK.
- EU leaders are open to the idea of providing guarantees to the UK and to other EU members outside the eurozone that the “euro-ins” will not impose their will on the “euro-outs”.
- There is strong agreement on the need to promote economic competitiveness.
UK sources say that in regard to Turk’s response to the second demand, the European council president is leaving open the option of saying the current flexibility here means there is no need for change or saying that offering reassurances for the UK will not undermine the current treaties.
In his letter, Tusks pleads with all sides to work constructively. He writes: “All involved must take their part of responsibility. I will act as an honest broker, but all member states and the institutions must show readiness for compromise for this process to succeed.”
Cameron welcomed the Tusk letter as encouraging, but said the negotiations would be tough. “The whole renegotiation is difficult. But I think Donald Tusk’s letter is encouraging in that the British reform agenda is being taken on, it’s going to be discussed, and I hope it will be brought to a successful conclusion,” the prime minister said.
Tusk published his letter as the government prepared for a parliamentary battle on the EU on two fronts on Tuesday – whether 16- and 17-year-olds should be given the right to vote in the EU referendum, and on separate plans to opt into a European fast-track scheme to share police DNA and fingerprint databases. With the prospect of a Tory rebellion in the Commons on the database, the government may have to rely on Labour votes.
The government is expected to succeed in overturning a vote in the House of Lords to allow those under 18 to vote in the EU referendum. This raises the possibility of a session of parliamentary ping-pong in which a bill passes to and fro between the two houses in the event of deadlock.
Labour sources said that under an obscure process known as “double insistence”, the bill could be temporarily shelved if the Commons rejects the Lords amendments twice. Government sources say that process cannot apply to proposals that have “financial privilege” – the declaration of the supremacy of the Commons when a proposal involves a cost. Clerks in the Commons have said the Lords amendment triggers financial privilege after government estimated that extending the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds would cost £6m.
Even if the bill had to be shelved under double insistence, it would still be brought back to life under the terms of the Parliament Act, which allows a bill to enter the statute book a year after its second reading in the Commons if it stalls in the Lords. The referendum bill will reach its second reading anniversary on 9 June, meaning that a referendum could not be held until the autumn if it is delayed by the Lords.
The No 10 proposal to widen the ban on claiming in-work benefits for four years is being drawn up by the No 10 official Max Chambers, who has suggested that a residency test could be introduced. This would ban EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits during their first four years in the UK, while no UK citizen could claim in-work benefits until four years into adulthood.
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