UK Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday (5 January) that he would consider pushing for a cap on workers from Europe and make cutting immigration a top priority as he seeks to renegotiate Britain's relationship with Brussels.
The prime minister said the UK needs to change the way migrants can claim benefits and the number coming over to work, as he set out key areas for discussion with other EU members.
Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show yesterday (5 January), Cameron said all options were on the table in pushing for a cap on the number of immigrants from new members of the EU.
The talk show took place against the backdrop of British fears of a mass influx of Romanians and Bulgarians following the lifting of labour restrictions for the two new EU member states on 1 January.
No spectacular arrival of populations took place and according to experts the impact from the lifting of the restrictions would be modest (see background).
Before the end of the year, Cameron's Conservative Party recently rushed through a bill curbing claimants' access to benefits. The package, which coincided with the lifting of labour restrictions, would stop EU citizens from lodging a claim until they had been in the country for three months.
Cameron’s comments also came after a row last month when the Liberal Democrats condemned as illegal Home Office proposals to bring in a limit of around 75,000 EU migrants per year.
Cameron insisted he had already made progress on renegotiation of Britain's membership of the EU, which he wants before the issue to a referendum vote by the end of 2017. However, he said that much more needed to be done on the issue of immigration and suggested he was willing to raise the issue of a cap in Brussels.
"We need change on claiming benefits, we need changes on free movement. I've said we want to get Britain out of the idea that there's an ever-closer union in the European Union – we don't want an ever-closer union, we want to have trade and co-operation, not an ever-closer union," Cameron was quoted as saying by the Guardian.
He also said that his government planned “to fix all of those things” as part of the renegotiation of the country’s relationship with the EU, ahead of the referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU, to be held by the end of 2017.
Among the changes he wanted to see, Cameron said he would work to stop child benefit being claimed by migrants for their children abroad. "I don't think that is right and that is something I want to change," he said.
Last year France and Germany accused Cameron of treating the EU like an "à la carte menu" from which he could pick powers. The opposition Labour Party said Britain risked sleepwalking towards EU exit.
Asked whether he would ever campaign for Britain to leave the EU if he does not get what he wants, Cameron insisted his goals were feasible.
The UK prime minister also indicated that regarding future EU enlargement, his country would make sure that tighter restrictions on migration were put in place, suggesting he could veto accessions if not.
"That is absolutely achievable because every time a new country joins the European Union, there has to be unanimity around the council table in Europe about what the arrangements are. So Britain will be able to insist for future countries joining, we'll be able to insist on a tougher, more robust regime."
For the time being, only tiny Montenegro is conducting accession negotiations and Serbia will open such on 21 January.