Senior government figures in Germany are voicing their growing support for David Cameron’s campaign to rewrite the terms of Britain’s EU membership, including backing the most contentious point – curbing benefits for non-national European citizens working in the UK.
The prime minister goes to Bavaria on Wednesday to attend a conference of the German state’s governing Christian Social Union, sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Manfred Weber, a deputy head of the CSU and leader of the biggest caucus in the European parliament, told the Guardian that the prime minister’s drive to freeze welfare payments for EU immigrants was justified and set an example for the rest of the union.
“This is really a wide European issue of justice,” said Weber, who will dine with Cameron and the German chancellor on Wednesday. “There can be a link with Cameron’s initiatives. It’s a European issue. Cameron is really creating the necessary pressure on this topic.
“On this principle David Cameron will for sure find support. The issue is justice. Politically, we can find in this a common understanding to fight against misuse. This is the message Cameron will find.”
The CSU conference takes place annually on the 6 January holiday and traditionally kicks off the political year in Germany. Cameron is to join Merkel, Horst Seehofer – the prime minister of Bavaria and CSU leader – and Weber for dinner on Wednesday evening. He will then briefly set out his arguments on Thursday morning before a debate on Britain in Europe.
Cameron’s attendance will follow a Commons statement on Tuesday afternoon, in which the prime minister will report back on the pre-Christmas EU summit where he laid out his arguments for reform. He is expected to confirm that he will allow ministers to campaign for an exit from the EU once his renegotiation is complete.
“The CSU is a strong ally for Cameron,” said Weber. “He will be among friends. He has friends in Germany.”
Merkel is understood to support much of the Cameron agenda as his negotiations enter the critical six-week period aimed at securing the terms of the deal by a mid-February EU summit. Those terms would then be subject to a British referendum, perhaps by the summer, on whether to remain in or to quit the EU.
But the devil is in the legal detail – how to craft a way of curbing benefits for mainly east Europeans in Britain in a way that complies with EU law. Cameron’s bid to freeze benefits for four years for EU citizens applies to people working in Britain as opposed to the unemployed. The proposal is widely seen as discriminatory and therefore illegal. Cameron also has to gain the unanimous support of all 27 other EU government leaders.
Weber’s comments are arguably the strongest and most explicit publicly stated from within Merkel’s coalition in support of the British position to date.
On other key Cameron demands, the Bavarian was highly supportive. He conceded that Britain, as a non-euro country, should be empowered to influence eurozone policy decisions – the paramount concern for George Osborne and the City of London – and that national parliaments should be ceded new powers to block EU legislation. Cameron is demanding a “red card” for an unspecified quorum of national parliaments, enabling them to veto legislation from the European commission.
A CSU policy paper likely to be adopted on Wednesday says: “A right of veto over European legislation (‘red card’) for a group of parliaments can be a sensible way of strengthening their position if a reasonable quorum guarantees there is no danger of paralysing lawmaking.”
Weber said the commission in Brussels would need to take greater account of the views of national parliaments in the EU, and there should be agreement that “a stop signal is really respected by the European commission. If national parliaments come together on regulation, the European commission must take this much more seriously than in the past.”
If the immigrants’ benefits issue is the most immediately toxic and contested topic, many on both sides of the negotiations see the the balance of power question between those in the euro and those not as having greater longer-term impact.
On this Weber opened the door to Cameron: “The CSU is strongly in favour of having Great Britain in the EU. Everyone sees that Britain has a good understanding. The City of London is for Europe a very important economic centre.
“There is openness to discuss new mechanisms to give London more power in getting influence about eurozone decision-making processes – the day-to-day issues of the European Central Bank and the European commission. We need to show the British public that Europe is taking British concerns into account.”
This article was written by Ian Traynor in Brussels, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 5th January 2016 13.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010