David Cameron’s hopes of restricting EU migrants’ access to welfare could be realised, but only until someone has been resident for six months, as part of a package of reforms already being drawn up inside the European commission.
The proposal falls far short of the four-year exclusion sought by Cameron, but may represent his best hope of a Commission-endorsed reform designed to address the whole issue of free movement, including access to welfare for those defined as in work, seeking work, or economically inactive.
The proposals drawn up by Marianne Thyssen, the EU commissioner for employment, social affairs and labour mobility, were due to be presented last week, but have now been delayed until the spring to give Cameron greater time to try to negotiate a stronger package.
The proposed access to welfare rules would be based on recent Court of Justice case law, which upheld the fundamental principle that the right to freedom of movement does not give automatic entitlement to social benefits.
The changes would also aim to ensure that rules on unemployment benefits and – critically for Cameron – family allowances are fair to everyone.
Cameron insists he has not abandoned his plan for a four-year ban on EU migrants accessing in-work benefits. But his spokeswoman said he would be willing to listen to other proposals that achieve the same objective during discussions at an EU Summit dinner on Thursday.
Cameron has acknowledged that he will not get an agreement on Thursday, and this may instead need to wait until the EU council meeting in February, by which time Thyssen’s proposals will be more clearly drafted.
Polling seen by cabinet ministers suggests a ban on access to benefits for the unemployed is seen as more critical to voters than in-work tax credits.
Separately, the British and Italian governments are at work on a joint initiative that seeks to reinterpret the “ever closer union” wording in order to distinguish between euro and non-euro countries’ commitment to the principle. Cameron has been freed to hold the highly risky in/out referendum in June, if he wishes to do so, following a decision of the Lords to vote to reject giving the vote in the referendum to 16 and 17 year olds.
In a bid to show a willingness to compromise on how to curb migration, the foreign secretary, Phillip Hammond, said on Monday: “We have heard a lot of our partners in Europe have concerns about [the four-year ban on migrant benefits]. So far we haven’t heard any counter-proposals. We haven’t heard any alternative suggestions that will deliver the same effect in a different way.
“But we have made very clear if people have other ideas that will deliver on this very important agenda for British people we are absolutely prepared to listen to them and we are prepared to enter into a dialogue about them, but at the moment the only proposition on the table is our four-year proposal.”
Arguing that EU leaders had given the “bum’s rush” to the UK, Boris Johnson, the London mayor, said in the Daily Telegraph on Monday that Cameron should insist on an optout similar to the one that allows Denmark to stop residents of other countries buying second homes.
This was dismissed by Downing Street as a solution for a “very specific and niche area where Denmark has a specific agreement linked to the purchase of second properties”.
“We are looking for something far more significant and far-reaching,” Cameron’s official spokeswoman said.
She also confirmed that Cameron would discuss his four renegotiation demands at over a working dinner at the Brussels summit on Thursday, but could not say how much time would be given over to the talks.
The spokeswoman said that the basis for the discussions would be Tusk’s letter regarding the renegotiation, which suggests that all the demands apart from four-year curbs on migrant benefits could be possible. Cameron’s other demands include better protections for non-eurozone countries, increased competitiveness and greater powers for national parliaments.
Cameron spoke by phone with the Slovakian prime minister, Robert Fico, to discuss the UK’s renegotiation ahead of Thursday’s meeting.
Downing Street’s spokeswoman said: “Mr Fico underlined that they want to see the UK remain in the EU and they want to work with us to find solutions – including on the more difficult area around immigration and welfare.”
According to an ICM poll of 2,053 voters for the Vote Leave campaign, British voters’ enthusiasm for leaving the European Union is growing and people are almost evenly split on whether to stay in the union or not. The Telegraph reported that, when “don’t knows” are included, 42% would back staying in the EU, and 41% would vote to leave.
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