Berlin ‘ready to find solutions’ on Brexit benefits question

David Cameron, with Angela Merkel [Number10gov/Flickr]

Germany is ready to help Britain win reforms on welfare benefits paid to migrants from other European Union countries and would itself like to see these rules tightened, the country’s Labour Minister Andrea Nahles said in a newspaper interview on Wednesday (20 January).

British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to reform the UK’s relationship with the EU ahead of an ‘in-out’ referendum he has promised to hold by the end of 2017. Welfare benefits for EU migrants to Britain are the thorniest issue in the negotiations.

“We want Britain to remain in the EU. That is our joint conviction,” Nahles told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) daily in a joint interview with French Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri.

“We are ready to find solutions to the Britons’ questions that address the issue of social benefits for foreign EU citizens,” Nahles said.

The newspaper said Germany and France saw the renegotiation of Britain’s EU ties as an opportunity to bundle concessions to London with their own wishes to reform welfare payments linked to the free movement of people within the 28-nation EU.

Nahles wants to protect German local authorities from having to pay out unlimited amounts to EU migrants without means, the FAZ added.

“From our point of view too, there are holes in the rules when it comes to avoiding false incentives. We can see that in Germany too,” she said.

The readiness of Germany and France, the EU’s leading powers, to show flexibility on the welfare issue is good news for Cameron, who wants to clinch a deal at an EU summit next month that he can then sell to British voters.

However, Nahles’ offer of support addresses the softer part of Cameron’s demands – cracking down on welfare abuse by those without jobs or other means – rather than Cameron’s push to discriminate against foreign workers.

Rich EU states support Cameron’s call to fight such ‘abuse’ of their welfare systems and Germany has led the charge by fighting – and winning – several cases in Europe’s Court of Justice to deny benefits to foreigners.

But Cameron wants a special dispensation to be able to discriminate between two identical workers on the grounds that one is, for example, Polish and the other British – and he is not supported on that position by other member states.

“One thing is clear: the principles of free movement of workers and non-discrimination are non-negotiable for either of us,” Nahles said. 

Labour ‘out’ campaign launched

Meanwhile in London, mavericks from the opposition Labour party launched their own;’out’ campaign Wednesday;- despite Labour’s official position being to support EU membership.

New left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn originally voted;’out’ in the country’s 1975 referendum, but now wants to stay within the bloc to fight for more social justice across Europe.

The vast majority of the party’s 231 MPs favour staying, but a handful will campaign for an out vote in the referendum.

Launching the ‘Labour out’ campaign, MP Graham Stringer even suggested Corbyn may still wish to leave the EU.

“It would not surprise me if [Corbyn’s official position] did change because it is completely inconsistent with what Jeremy has done in his time in parliament,” Stringer, told reporters at its launch.

Stringer, who said he was due to meet Corbyn later on Wednesday to press him over his position, said the leader and his finance spokesman John McDonnell had consistently voted to oppose EU integration over their 30 years in parliament.

Corbyn was elected with strong support among the party’s membership but little backing from his own members of parliament.

“One can guess that it was about securing his position;… but it is not his natural position, it is not his historic position,” Stringer said. “I am going to try and nudge him back to his natural position.”

A spokesman for Corbyn said his position would not change.

“The Labour party has got a united position, which is to support the ‘remain’ campaign but at the same time to push an agenda of progressive social change in Europe,” he said.

“It’s been well established since Jeremy was elected that that’s our collective position and that will go on being the case.”

Stringer said Corbyn’s position also did not chime with many of the thousands of people who had joined Labour since it lost last year’s national election, and was not electorally attractive in the run up to local and regional elections in May.

Labour said in the 2015 general election campaign that a referendum should only be held if there were a further transfer of powers to Brussels, but within weeks of losing had come out in support of the government’s plan to hold a vote.

Cameron is widely rumoured to favour an early referendum – possibly in June or at the latest the autumn – if renegotiations are successful at a Brussels summit in February.

However, he has left himself open the option of holding the referendum any point until the end of 2017.

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?

  • 2016: February: Next - and likely decisive - European Council summit.

  • 2016 June: Rumoured favoured date of Cameron for holding the referendum.

  • 2017: Self-imposed end of year deadline for in/out referendum.



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