Cameron seeks quick curbs on migrant benefits in 'Brexit' talks

31st January 2016, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Sunday began talks pressing EU president Donald Tusk to allow the UK to immediately restrict benefits to EU migrants if Britain votes to stay in the bloc.

The pair shook hands outside Cameron's Downing Street office before heading inside to thrash out the details over a meal of salmon, beef and pear and apple crumble.

If the British people voted to stay in the EU in a referendum, Cameron's proposed "emergency brake" would come into force immediately after the vote and exclude migrants from other EU countries from claiming benefits such as income top-ups for low-paid workers until they had paid into the British system.

"The Prime Minister will tell Tusk tonight that an emergency brake on in-work benefits would have to apply immediately if it is to form part of a deal on the UK renegotiation," the senior government source said.

"A deal will only be possible if a brake would apply to current levels of EU migration to Britain, could be triggered immediately after the referendum and would apply long enough to resolve the underlying problem."

The government says it wants to limit in-work benefits as it considers it a "pull factor" encouraging large numbers of Europeans to come to the UK in search of work.

The number of European job seekers has become a hot political issue in Britain and key driver of anti-EU sentiment.

Yet Cameron is under increasing pressure from his own centre-right Conservative party, which has a strong eurosceptic contingent, to come back with a robust deal.

Opinion polls currently suggest that Britons would vote to leave the EU in a so-called "Brexit" by a small margin.

- 'Pretty thin gruel' -

Cameron has set out four areas in which he wants reform -- migrant benefits, safeguards against more political integration in the EU, protection of countries such as Britain which do not use the euro currency and boosting economic competitiveness.

Tusk announced on Twitter that all four would be discussed, and that if progress were made he would "table my proposal to EU countries tomorrow" (Monday).

An EU source told AFP that Tusk was accompanied by his full negotiation team.

"I don't expect Tusk to offer future treaty change on free movement" of people, the source said.

The main sticking point has been Cameron's insistence that EU migrants employed in Britain must wait four years before claiming certain welfare payments, which could require a treaty change.

"The Prime Minister intends to leave Tusk in no doubt that he will not do a deal at any price," added the source.

British officials hope that a final deal can be nailed down at a Brussels summit being held on February 18 and 19, which Cameron would then use to campaign for Britain to remain in the 28-member bloc.

An agreement at that time would open the door to a referendum in June, but Cameron insists he is willing to hold out for as long as it takes to secure the right package of reforms, if necessary delaying the referendum until September or even next year.

Tusk's visit comes after Cameron held a hastily-arranged meeting with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday to try to resolve the British leader's main concern -- reducing the number of EU migrants coming to Britain.

Cameron emerged from the talks with Juncker saying that, while there had been "progress", the proposal on the table was "not good enough".

"Reflecting domestic pressure on Cameron, the co-chair of the anti-EU Conservatives for Britain group dismissed the talks as "synthetic" and a "farce".

"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," he told Sky News.

© 2016 AFP

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