British Prime Minister David Cameron told EU leaders on Thursday evening (18 February) that the ‘emergency brake’ to stop EU migrants claiming in-work benefits – a major condition for his support for the UK staying in the bloc – should last for up to 13 years.
Speaking at a crunch EU summit to keep Britain in the bloc, Cameron pushed for the brake to be in place for an initial seven years with the possibility of extending it for three years, and another three years after that.
Cameron had pushed for a total ban, but that was watered down in the draft settlement brokered by European Council President Donald Tusk. Individual migrants would be banned from claiming the benefits for four years, under the proposal.
Cameron also demanded a total ban on benefits for EU migrants’ children living outside of the UK, rather than the indexation system based on the cost of living in the country of origin currently on the table.
That system would evaluate the cost of living in the country of origin and alter the benefits accordingly.
An EU source told EURACTIV that Cameron used a “harsh tone” when he spoke to EU heads of state. He “could not backtrack” on the draft proposals tabled by Tusk on 2 February.
Since then, the settlement has been watered down further, with a new draft leaked this morning.
Cameron’s tactics, the source said, made some member states nervous he could spring further proposals on them, which are not currently on the table. That could happen in later talks during the summit, after Cameron has held bilateral meetings.
Visegrad wakes up
Another source said the Visegrad states, consisting of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, “suddenly woke up” during the discussion on the child benefits.
The group got behind Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, who called the British premier’s proposals “discriminating”.
The V4 position on benefits “isn’t about the money, it’s a point of principle,” according to a source.
Visegrad leaders don’t want to go home accused of being traitors to their own countrymen. Even so, the pressure on them to agree was growing last night.
Poland demanded that any indexation scheme should only count for newcomers, and about ten, mostly Eastern European member states, demanded that an emergency brake would only last for three years with a possible extension of only two more years.
Meanwhile, the Greeks lashed out at Cameron’s proposals for EU migrants. They said they lack solidarity and that social policies are disappearing in Europe at a time where Greek citizens and many others are suffering.
As the summit came to a close, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said many countries had made compromises in order to avoid Brexit.
Pushing back against Parliament
Cameron also sharpened his tone towards the European Parliament, pushing back at moves to give MEPs greater say in the process.
He will accept that MEPs will have influence over the final emergency brake mechanism when it is debated by them, as part of the usual legislative process.
Earlier this week, he visited senior MEPs to garner their support for the package.
‘Ever closer union’
Issues around the term “ever closer union”, treaty change, and safeguards for the City of London, remained contentious this evening in Brussels.
Merkel confirmed “ever closer union” – a reference to language exempting the UK from pursuing further political integration with the EU – had been a major sticking point.
French President François Hollande has reservations about Cameron’s demands for safeguards for countries that do not use the euro currency, while sources said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was “very determined” in his objections to calls to exclude Britain from the EU’s goal of “ever closer union”.
Diplomats and a “war room” of lawyers are expected to work through the night on the British deal before presenting leaders with a new text tomorrow.
But some countries are concerned the special carve-out for Britain could set a precedent for other member states.
French President François Hollande arrived at the summit yesterday saying European leaders should “Allow the UK to remain in the EU but within the framework of the fundamental principles of the European Union. Because otherwise another country will ask other exceptions.”
“No country should have a veto, no country should escape common rules or common authorities,” Hollande said. “So at the same time as we are talking about Britain, we should have all the other countries in mind.”
Meetings between Cameron, Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will take place. Tusk will also meet with the Belgian, Czech and French leaders.
More political discussions between the heads of state and government will then take place tomorrow morning, with a deal hoped for at some point on Friday.
“We have made some progress,” Tusk told reporters, “but there is still much to do”.
Britain could benefit from Austria’s newly-announced decision to impose caps on incoming asylum seekers, which has already drawn a stern letter of condemnation from the European Commission.
“Britain is a big beneficiary,” said a source. “Everyone just wants to sort this out.”
The Austria issue caused the migration discussion to drag on until about 2:30AM
The Brexit debate has distracted leaders from focusing on the migration crisis, adding impetus behind the push to finalise the deal.
But Juncker also struck a more optimistic tone. He said that EU leaders agreed that the best solution was a European one – in stark contrast from earlier summits – and they reaffirmed their commitment to the refugee relocation quota system.