British prime minister David Cameron said restricting EU migrant access to Britain’s welfare system was a red line in his negotiations with the bloc, ahead of an EU summit he wants to use to launch informal talks on the issue.
Cameron, reelected on May 7, has pledged to re-shape Britain’s ties with the EU before holding an in-out membership referendum by the end of 2017.
He is under growing pressure to cut immigration. Official data released hours before he spoke showed net annual migration hit a near record high of 318,000 in 2014, despite his pledges to cut it to less than 100,000, much of it from the EU and fuelled by Britain’s strong economy.
“I and many others believe it is right for us to reduce the incentives for people who want to come here,” Cameron said in London before flying to an EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Latvia, his first foreign trip since his re-election.
“Changes to welfare to cut EU migration will be an absolute requirement in my renegotiation.”
The focus of Cameron’s speech was largely domestic, but its timing will be seen as a message to EU leaders about how important the issue is to him. He said he supported the EU’s freedom of movement rules but was not alone in wanting to ensure benefits were not a driver of that movement.
“The freedom of movement was always supposed to be the freedom of movement to go and take a job and that is the freedom of movement I support,” he said.
Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, said he had invited Cameron’s closest ally and chancellor, George Osborne, to Berlin to discuss possible reform. Germany wants reform of eurozone rules, something that could be done at the same time as Britain’s renegotiation. It also said it might support changes to crack down on abuses of welfare systems.
Osborne accused the EU of sleepwalking out of the global economy. Such rhetoric has alarmed firms worried Britain might stumble out of the EU; Airbus became the latest to say a British EU exit would involve huge risks.
Measures Cameron unveiled included making working illegally a criminal offence and giving authorities the power to seize illegal earnings. Critics pointed out they would do little to reduce EU immigration, which is legal.
Cameron wants to force EU migrants to wait four years before accessing a range of welfare benefits and to win the power to deport out-of-work EU jobseekers after six months.
If the renegotiation is completed early, Cameron has made clear he might hold the referendum before 2017. But he is under pressure from some of his own Eurosceptic politicians to take his time getting what they consider to be a meaningful settlement.
Some countries, such as France, have ruled out the prospect of the EU changing its founding treaties to suit Britain.
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