British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office on Sunday played down reports that he was prepared to drop one of his key demands for reforming Britain’s relationship with the European Union after other countries made it clear they would not accept it.
Several British newspapers reported Cameron would signal at a meeting of EU leaders this week he is willing to compromise on his plan to make EU migrant workers wait four years before they are allowed to claim some state benefits.
“This is simply not true,” a spokeswoman said. She did, however, point out to a speech by the British leader last month in which he said he was open to different ways of dealing with the issue but they must deliver on the objective of controlling EU migration.
A climb down would boost the chances of Britain being able to reach a deal with other EU leaders but would likely lead to a row within Cameron’s Conservative Party, who made the benefits pledge a manifesto commitment ahead of May’s national election.
Earlier this month European Council President Donald Tusk, who is running the renegotiation with Britain, said Cameron’s pledge to cut immigration was the main stumbling block to reaching a deal.
Officials and diplomats see the proposals discriminating between EU citizens on national grounds, which they say jars with basic EU treaty law.
Immigration is a top issue of voter concern in Britain, and a ComRes poll for the Independent on Sunday newspaper found three quarters of Britons back the plan to make migrant workers wait four years before claiming state benefits. However, only 31% believed Cameron would be able to achieve this.
Britain’s relationship with the EU has long divided Cameron’s Conservatives, contributing to the downfall of two of his predecessors.
Eurosceptic Conservative lawmaker Owen Paterson, a former government minister who backs Britain leaving the 28-nation bloc, said Cameron’s demands were not enough as coming to Britain to find jobs was generally a bigger draw for migrants than the welfare system.
“We were promised a major renegotiation, a total change with the relationship with our European neighbours,” he told Sky News. “These are really trivial demands … we have got to manage our own immigration policy and at the moment we can’t.”
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.
If he achieves the reforms, Cameron will campaign to stay in. Otherwise, the Conservatives might campaign to leave the EU. This decision could have far-reaching consequences for trade, investment and Great Britain's position on the international scene.
Some other European countries are ready to listen to Cameron's concerns on issues such as immigration, and may be prepared to make limited concessions to keep Britain in the bloc.
But EU leaders also have their red lines, and have ruled out changing fundamental EU principles, such as the free movement of workers, and a ban on discriminating between workers from different EU states.
>> Read our LinksDossier: The UK's EU referendum: On the path to Brexit?
- December 17-18: European Council summit in Brussels on Britain's four-point negotiating stance.
- 2016: Most likely date for the 'in/out' referendum in Britain.
- End of 2017: Deadline to hold referendum.