David Cameron received qualified support for his EU renegotiation plan from his Polish counterpart on Friday, at the start of a two-country tour to firm up backing before the EU summit at which he hopes the proposals will be finalised.
At a short press briefing in Warsaw, Cameron and his Polish counterpart, Beata Szydło, barely touched on the subject of a brake on benefits for EU migrants to Britain – a sensitive issue for Szydło due to the estimated 1.3m Poles living in the UK.
But Cameron – who is on his second visit to Poland in two months – hinted that he may offer Poland military help in return for its support for a deal to keep Britain in the EU.
Cameron met Szydło in Warsaw before flying to Copenhagen for a meeting with the Danish prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen.
Szydło and Cameron, who did not take questions from journalists, focused on what they described as a new “strategic partnership” between the two countries, with a focus on securing Nato’s eastern flank.
Cameron said: “I agree that Britain is better off in a reformed EU. We want to make sure that our two countries’ cooperation is as close as possible. We want to see a full strategic partnership in the EU and in Nato … to secure Nato’s eastern flank.”
The talks in Poland were likely to prove most tricky, given that Poles coming to the UK in the future could be the largest national group affected by the “emergency brake”, the proposal to give the UK the power to stop EU migrants claiming full in-work benefits for up to four years.
But Szydło struck a reasonably positive note, saying she fully supported some aspects of Cameron’s plans, and stressed her desire to see the UK remain in the EU. “We fully support the prime minister’s proposals regarding solutions that are aimed at improving competitiveness, removing red tape and granting proper significance to national parliaments,” she said.
Referring to the emergency brake, she said there were issues that “need to be ironed out”. But she also said it was “very important” to Poland for the UK to remain in the EU, particularly given the number of Poles living and working in Britain.
The draft EU renegotiation plan has not been harshly criticised in any EU capital since Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, published it, but neither has it been universally accepted; eastern European countries in particular have expressed concern about the emergency brake plans.
Earlier this week Konrad Szymański, Poland’s Europe minister, described it as a problem, saying: “We can’t accept discrimination.”
The draft plan also leaves unresolved the question of how long the UK would be allowed to apply the emergency brake for, and how long two successive extensions would be allowed to last.
Last month, Poland’s defence minister, Antoni Macierewicz, told Polish broadcaster Radio Maryja that Britain had promised to permanently station 1,000 military personnel in Poland from next year. But at the time, the Ministry of Defence denied the report, saying only that Britain would send soldiers to take part in military exercises. Poland is due to host the next Nato summit, in July.
Warsaw has repeatedly pressed for more Nato forces on its soil, arguing it needs a stronger response to Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine. Moscow has previously signalled it would regard the establishment of a standing Nato presence on its borders as a hostile act.
Cameron wants the plan to be agreed at the EU summit starting on Thursday 18 February to enable him to hold his EU referendum in June.
However, the challenge he faces was underlined on Friday by the publication of a poll in the Times showing 45% of respondents supporting “Brexit”, compared with 36% against, while a fifth remain undecided.
The YouGov poll was carried out two days after the publication of the draft EU renegotiation plan, and it showed a three-point increase in the number of people saying they would vote to leave the EU since the previous week.
Most members of the cabinet seem likely to vote with Cameron to remain in the EU, but in an interview published in the House magazine, John Whittingdale, the culture secretary, hinted that he might take advantage of Cameron’s decision to let his ministers campaign to leave.
Whittingdale said: “I have a track record where I’ve been highly critical of the way the EU works and I have opposed measures for closer integration and it certainly needs reform. I hope the prime minister will get that agreement and then I’ll look at it when he comes back with it.”
Asked if he would rule out backing Brexit, he replied: “I wouldn’t.”
This article was written by Andrew Sparrow in London and Alex Duval Smith in Warsaw, for theguardian.com on Friday 5th February 2016 10.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010