Members of the European Parliament today (24 February) cast doubt on Prime Minister David Cameron’s deal to curb EU migrant benefits, raising the possibility of voting down the emergency brake after the 23 June referendum on Britain’s membership of the bloc.
Gianni Pittella, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats, said in a Brussels debate that his group would fight against the emergency brake to stop EU migrants claiming in-work benefits for seven years.
That deal was struck after marathon two day talks with EU leaders in Brussels last week but the promise can only be delivered with MEPs’ backing.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday night (19 February) said he would campaign for Britain to stay in a reformed EU, after securing promises of treaty change and compromising on his demands over benefits for EU migrants and their children.
Pittella leads the second largest party in the Parliament. “Red lines must not be crossed,” he said. “We will never accept any form of discrimination between European citizens.”
An EU citizen being paid less than a British worker was discrimination, he added.
The European Commission will put the emergency brake in front of MEPs for approval if the British vote to stay in the EU. Commission boss Jean-Claude Juncker said that would happen as soon as a Yes vote was confirmed.
“I very much hope that [discrimination] will be gainsaid by the proposals after the referendum,” Pittella said in a speech likely to be seized on by Eurosceptic Brits.
Cameron travelled to Brussels before the marathon talks in a bid to garner MEPs’ support for the emergency brake, which critics say breaks EU discrimination laws.
Manfred Weber, leader of the largest parliamentary group, the European People’s Party, said his group would support the emergency brake.
But he warned that any Brits voting for Brexit in the hope of another round of renegotiations, as London Mayor Boris Johnson has suggested, would be disappointed.
“If people are saying in the UK that if they say ‘no’ they will get a better deal, we have to say to them there will be no further negotiations,” said Weber.
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal ALDE group criticised Boris Johnson for backing Brexit, which he was said was against interests of the City of London.
“The pound is rapidly falling, the unity of the UK is under threat,” he said, referring to the Scottish National Party’s threats to push for independence in case of Brexit, and Sterling’s fall on the currency markets.
The pound plunged Monday (22 February) as Prime Minister David Cameron warned that a vote to leave the EU this year would risk Britain’s economic and national security.
The UK’s “American cousins” were asking Britain to stay but didn’t want a separate free trade agreement like the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the country, Verhofstadt told the Parliament.
“The special relationship between the US and UK is apparently not so special anymore,” he said.
“If I see now how their currency is devalued, how they are alienated from the US, then I can see how this is turning Britain into little England.”
UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who also spoke at the debate in Brussels, said, “Is the European Parliament going to support British exceptionalism? I think we’ve heard voices today saying it is not.”
Farage also mocked European Council President Donald Tusk, who brokered Cameron’s deal with EU leaders, for saying that the deal was legally binding, and irreversible.
Cameron has always said the reform deal must be legally binding and irreversible.
“It is not legally binding in any way,” Farage said. Referring to promises to lodge the deal at the UN, Farage said, “You might as well lodge an old pair of socks in the UN”.
He agreed with long-time Cameron ally Michael Gove MP, who today told the BBC that the deal was ultimately subject to the backing of EU judges.
Tusk had said, “It cannot be annulled by the European Court of Justice.”
He added, “If the UK agrees to stay I hope this European Parliament will ensure the agreement enters into legislation.”
Weber, Verhofstadt and Tusk all said that now was not the time to divide Europe, which had to stand together against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Cameron said the same thing in the House of Commons yesterday.
Tory MEP Ashley Fox, of the European Conservatives and Reformist group, revealed he would vote to remain. But he warned, “We must stop economic migrants and asylum seekers moving round the EU at will.”
He also took a swipe at Nigel Farage for comparing the EU to the Soviet Union. No one could leave the Soviet Union, he told the UKIP leader.
“Being in the EU is a choice and the Conservative Party will respect that choice,” Fox said.
Verhofstadt added, “This deal is not about Europe. It is a deal to reunite the Tory party. I don’t know the result of the referendum but I do know this deal will fail to reunite the Tory party.”
The United Kingdom will vote on its membership of the European Union on 23 June. As we move within a month of the all-important date, follow EurActiv’s live feed for all the latest developments.
British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union. The renegotiation will be followed by a referendum by the end of 2017, to decide whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the EU.
After last week's European Council, where a reform deal was agreed, Cameron will campaign to stay in with the referendum date set for 23 June.
EU leaders had their red lines, and ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.
The decision on whether to stay or go could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.
- 23 June: Referendum.
- July-December 2017: United Kingdom holds rotating EU Council Presidency.