Migrant benefits limit is sideshow in EU debate, says Alan Johnson

An emergency brake to limit in-work benefits for EU migrants is a “sideshow” that will fail to reduce the number of arrivals to the UK, Alan Johnson has said.

As David Cameron prepares to meet the European council president, Donald Tusk, on the margins of a Syria donor conference in London, Johnson the former home secretary and leader of Labour’s pro-EU campaign, said he looked forward to discussing the “real issues”.

Meanwhile the French president, François Hollande, offered a cautious welcome for the reforms proposed by Tusk. “We want the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union,” Hollande said.

“The compromise that has been found will likely allow us to find solutions to problems that until now seemed difficult to resolve. But at the European council there can be no new adjustments or new negotiations.”

Downing Street will be encouraged that France, which had concerns about Britain’s demands for new protections for non-eurozone members, is prepared to sign up to the Tusk package. But Hollande’s remarks show that Cameron will not be able to try to strengthen the protections for non-eurozone countries at an EU summit later this month.

No 10 will have been less encouraged by Johnson’s remarks on the emergency brake, one of the principle measures in a package of reforms proposed by Tusk.

Under the terms of the proposed deal, the UK and other EU member states would be allowed to apply for the suspension of in-work benefits for four years if they can prove that their welfare system is being overwhelmed by demands by migrants. But the European council would have to approve the brake, which would be lifted in stages over the four years. This means that EU migrants would gradually start to receive benefits during their first four years in Britain.

Johnson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “On that specific issue [the emergency brake], I think that is progress. We believe in the principle of fair contribution. That is why it was in our manifesto that there should be a limit of two years before benefits are paid.”

Asked whether it mattered whether the brake would cut immigration numbers, Johnson said: “It was never going to do that … The issue of in-work benefits isn’t a draw factor … There are all kinds of factors why people choose to move round Europe. I don’t think that [in-work benefits] is one of them.

“This is a sideshow. The sideshow is almost out of the way and then we can get on with the real issues about the EU. As far as Ukip are concerned, we are not frightened to face up to this ‘fear of others’ argument they make.”

Johnson’s remarks are likely to be seized on by Eurosceptic Tories and they also set him at odds with Jeremy Corbyn. In December the Labour leader said he opposed the Cameron’s proposed four-year ban on in-work benefits.

The prime minister received more helpful news when Justine Greening, the Eurosceptic international development secretary, indicated that she would campaign to remain in the EU.

Greening told Today: “As Theresa May said, I agree with her that I think this is a good basis for a deal and at that stage we will start the debate on whether Britain should stay in or leave the EU. I happen to agree with the prime minister, this a good deal. I hope we can seal the deal when he goes to Brussels later this month.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 4th February 2016 10.08 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010