David Cameron is prepared to compromise on his controversial demand that EU migrants should be banned from claiming in-work benefits for four years in the face of overwhelming opposition across Europe.
Amid warnings from Brussels that resistance to the plan is being voiced from all the other 27 EU countries, the Guardian understands that the prime minister accepts he will have to be flexible on the four-year demand to save his EU negotiations.
Cameron will make a final push at an EU summit next week for Europe’s leaders to agree to a legally binding commitment to ban EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits. But British officials now accept that the negative soundings from the “sherpas” – officials who prepare the groundwork ahead of summits – in the other member states wholly reflect the strong views of their national leaders.
The prime minister, who indicated last month that he might be prepared to show some flexibility when he outlined his four-point EU reform plan to the European council president, Donald Tusk, showed he was willing to give ground during a visit to Warsaw. Speaking in Warsaw on Thursday after the new Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, said she did not “see eye to eye” with the UK over plans to restrict access to in-work benefits, Cameron said he was seeking to find agreement.
Asked at a press conference in Warsaw whether it was time for him to compromise on the benefit ban, Cameron said: “There is real engagement with the agenda that we have set out, a lot of common ground, a lot of agreement on the very significant proposals that we have made. Some of them are difficult and they need further work. Everyone is committed to doing that further work and, I think, reaching agreement.”
Cameron is planning to tell fellow EU leaders at a summit in February – the moment when Tusk hopes to reach a resolution on No 10’s reform package – that an agreement must show that his concerns about high levels of EU migration have been addressed.
But the prime minister will indicate that the so-called “fourth basket” in his reform plan, covering welfare and benefits, has multiple elements designed to give the UK better control over migration from the EU. If he can win agreement on most, though not necessarily all, of these proposals he is likely to feel that goal has been achieved.
Rob Oxley, media officer of the Vote Leave group, said of signs that No 10 was prepared to compromise on the four-year ban: “David Cameron’s renegotiation has amounted to a trivial set of demands that won’t bring powers back to the UK and, as the OBR [Office for Budget Responsibility] have admitted, won’t impact immigration flows.
“Smoke and mirrors from No 10 won’t hide the fact that any compromise with intransigent EU leaders would only further water down the renegotiation.”
Will Straw, executive director of Stronger In, said: “British prime ministers from Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair have a strong track record of delivering reforms which benefit Britain and David Cameron is right to continue pursuing the best deal for Britain. Being at the table gives us the best chance of delivering reforms now and into the future.”
Cameron has not ruled out avoiding charges that the four-year ban would be discriminatory by imposing it on UK citizens as well. But this idea, drawn up by No 10 official Max Chambers, is being opposed by Iain Duncan Smith.
The four-year ban was one of nine specific proposals in the immigration section of his letter, including a demand that EU migrants working in the UK should not be allowed to send child benefit to children back home. Tusk has indicated that he might be able to find agreement on child benefit.
The Guardian understands that, in the event of a definitive failure to win agreement on the four-year ban, Cameron would feel able to say he has won substantial concessions if he win agreement in some of the other areas.
The other proposals are:
• Restricting free movement to citizens from future EU member states.
• Tougher and longer re-entry bans for fraudsters and people who collude in sham marriages.
• Addressing the way in which it is easier for an EU citizen to bring a non-EU spouse to Britain than it is for a UK citizen to do the same.
• Stronger powers to deport criminals.
• Addressing recent European court of justice judgments that have been favourable to the UK on free movement.
• Restricting access to social housing.
Cameron is signalling a more flexible approach after Szydło warned him that the “basic principles” of the EU’s rules on freedom of movement must be respected. Poland and other eastern European countries, whose citizens would be hit harder than citizens from wealthier member states, believe the ban breaks the EU’s laws on discrimination. The ban on in-work benefits would require a treaty change because EU citizens are entitled to be treated in the same way as UK citizens in the workplace, including top-ups to their wages through tax credits.
Szydło said: “Of course, there are discussions and issues where we do not see eye to eye today. Among those issues are welfare and benefits.”
But Cameron took heart when Szydło signalled a degree of support for his plans to make it all but impossible for EU migrants to claim out-of-work benefits. She said: “We fully accept the right of the United Kingdom to take sovereign decisions with regard to welfare policy. We want to find a solution that is acceptable to the United Kingdom.”
Cameron is indicating that he is prepared to show flexibility after a constructive dinner on Wednesday night with Szydło, who is from the strongly nationalist and conservative Law and Justice party. Cameron is understood to have found the conversation with Szydło refreshing as they touched on common ground on the need to emphasise that the EU is a collection of sovereign nation states rather than a political union.
Cameron’s thinking emerged as the view crystallises in Brussels that he will need to climb down on the welfare issue if he wants a deal by February. Cameron, according to a senior source in Brussels, “has to adapt his position to reality” on the welfare row. “All the legal experts say this is not feasible,” the source said.
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