EU referendum: Hilary Benn says Cameron is failing to see big picture

PM with media

David Cameron has been accused by the shadow foreign secretary of a leadership failure in Europe as the prime minister prepares to hold a crucial meeting to finalise the renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership terms.

Hilary Benn said Cameron had not seen the “big picture” if he was willing to leave the union over welfare reform proposals for EU citizens, which are expected to be published within days.

Donald Tusk, the European council president, is due at Downing Street on Sunday for a working dinner to discuss the details of proposed reforms ahead of a summit in February. A proposed “emergency brake” on EU citizens claiming welfare in the UK is expected to be discussed – which Cameron is expected to say must come into force immediately after an in/out referendum.

Eurosceptics have denounced the latest Brussels plan as derisory. Government sources say Cameron is prepared to hold out for as long as it takes to get a proper deal he can sell to the British public, even if it means pushing back the referendum into next year.

Benn told the Murnaghan programme on Sky News that Cameron’s threats to leave were an example of poor leadership. “To have brought the whole future of our relationship with the European Union down to this one issue shows that the prime minister, I think, is missing the big picture,” he said.

“The idea that you would say ‘Well, if I don’t get just this one thing in the perfect form I am seeking, then we are off’ is not actually the leadership we should expect from our prime minister.”

Benn dismissed suggestions that Labour’s leadership was “lukewarm” on the question, insisting the opposition remained “firmly in support of Britain remaining in the European Union”.

The emergency brake proposal has been put forward by Brussels as an alternative to Cameron’s original plan to impose a unilateral four-year curb that other member states ruled out as discriminatory and in breach of the freedom of movement principle.

The PM cancelled a trip to Scandinavia to fly to Brussels to discuss the idea with the EU commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz.

Cameron said the mechanism was “not good enough” in its current form and he is expected to seek assurances that present levels of migration will be deemed sufficient to trigger it and that it could remain in place “long enough to resolve the underlying problem”, perhaps for up to seven years.

Cameron will insist it should only be regarded as a “stop-gap” while a more permanent solution is worked on.

Reaching a deal at the summit on 18-19 February is seen as vital if Cameron wants to hold an early referendum on EU membership because an agreement at a later date would make it hard to schedule a vote before the school summer holidays.

Cameron, however, insists he would not do a deal “at any price” and is prepared to hold off with the plebiscite – which must be held by the end of 2017 – if he considers the deal on the table to be inadequate.

Eurosceptics have dismissed the proposals on the table as “pretty thin gruel” that would do little or nothing to stem the flow of would-be workers arriving in the UK, notably from eastern European states.

Steve Baker, the co-chair of the anti-EU Conservatives for Britain group, said Cameron was engaged in a “synthetic” row with Brussels and dismissed the renegotiation as a “farce”.

“People understand they must create ‘victory’ out of whatever they are handed and in this case we think there has been a long series of humiliating capitulations leading to this point,” he told Murnaghan. “It is not going to answer the concerns of the British people. We need the power in our own parliament to determine what our migration policy is.”

Baker conceded that open dissent both within the Vote Leave organisation and between rival organisations seeking to front the “leave” campaign was proving an unhelpful distraction.

“I very much regret that some severe disagreements have emerged into the public domain,” he said after reports of moves by MPs to oust Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings. “But I am convinced that everybody involved is determined to reach an accommodation, put the whole thing to bed and move forward positively,” he added.

Speaking later on the BBC’s Sunday Politics, Baker indicated there would have to be major changes within Vote Leave to maintain support from MPs.

At the heart of the internal dispute is the role of Cummings and his insistence that they should not join forces with Leave.EU, which is closely aligned to Ukip. Both groups are fighting to achieve official designation from the Electoral Commission as the main out campaign group – which would entitle them to public funding of more than £500,000.

Asked about the leadership of Vote Leave, Baker said: “Given the severe concerns of my colleagues it’s quite clear there are going to have to be material changes in Vote Leave in order to carry parliamentarians with the campaign.”

It is thought that the proposed benefit ban would be available to all EU states, and be activated when migration levels were deemed high enough to put public services or welfare systems under severe strain.

It is one of four areas where Cameron is seeking reforms, alongside the lifting of member states’ commitment to “ever closer union”, measures to protect non-euro states and improve EU competitiveness, and greater powers for national parliaments.

He is expected to press for the current proposals relating to all four areas to be strengthened further, as well as for action to tackle “back door” immigration into the UK and other “abuses” of free movement rules.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Sunday 31st January 2016 13.54 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010