UK Prime Minister David Cameron today (16 February) in Brussels failed to gain assurances from European Parliament leaders that they would pass unchanged the so-called emergency brake mechanism to stop new EU migrants to Britain claiming in-work benefits.
The mechanism is one of the most controversial demands for EU reform made by Cameron, who has demanded the changes as his price for campaigning for the UK to stay in the bloc.
Cameron has already agreed to water down his initial demands for a total ban on EU migrants claiming the welfare for four years to a sliding scale, with payments increasing over three set time periods.
How long those time periods will be has not yet been agreed by diplomats preparing for this Thursday’s crunch summit of EU leaders. That now looks likely to be decided by heads of state and government, if at all.
The British social security system pays in-work benefits as a right, rather than using a contributory system built up over time like many other European countries.
The UK argues that this justifies it being given special treatment, something afforded to it by European Council President Donald Tusk’s settlement deal.
Cameron travelled to Brussels this morning to meet with European Parliament leaders. Under the terms of the settlement brokered by Tusk, the emergency brake mechanism is subject to European Parliament backing.
In the “ordinary legislative procedure” the deal foresees, MEPs would have the chance to debate and change the bill. Before it can become EU law, an identical text must be agreed with the EU Council.
But any changes to the mechanism will be seized on by the Out campaign as evidence that Cameron is powerless to deliver the reforms he has vowed to force through.
While Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party, the largest group in the Parliament, said the “UK could count” on the Parliament, other leaders were less positive.
And sources in the Socialists and Democrats group exclusively told EURACTIV that changes would be made.
“The European Parliament will intervene and have a say, though, in the implementation measures of the deal,” the source said.
There are concerns over the “emergency brake” mechanism, the source said, in case it triggered discrimination between EU workers.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz warned, “No government can go to a parliament and ask for a guarantee about the result.
“This is a democracy. Once the frame is agreed, we will start the legislative process. This is not a veto.”
Guy Verhofstadt, of the liberal ALDE group, told reporters by a fridge emblazoned with the Union Jack, “We will be very open and very constructive in this process, but we can never predict the outcome of a legislative procedure.”
Syed Kamall, the British Conservative leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group told EURACTIV, “Of course no political group leaders can guarantee the support of everyone in their group, but getting a declaration from the main group leaders that they will seek to deliver the contents of the Council’s deal is an important step.”
UKIP leader Nigel Farage, of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, said, “If the prime minister did win a referendum, it would be on a deal that would subsequently be scuppered by the European Parliament. There are many groups here who are spoiling for a fight.
“The real truth is that this deal is not worth the paper it’s written on. It is subject to European Parliamentary approval and ultimately judgements of the European Court of Justice.”
A spokesman for the Greens said, “It’s clear that any agreement made in the Council cannot expect to be simply rubber stamped by the European Parliament.
“While the Greens/EFA group firmly believes that the UK’s place is within the European Union, and that reforms are certainly necessary, we will also defend Parliament’s right as co-legislator to ensure that the reforms are the right ones and that they benefit all European citizens equally.”
Gabi Zimmer, the president of the GUE/NGL group of hard left MEPs said, “The EU would also be well advised not to follow Mr Cameron’s most regressive requests in the field of social security and freedom of movement.”
Apart from Weber, only the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom Group gave unqualified support for the emergency brake.
Gerolf Annemans is leader of the Belgian Vlaams Belang party and a member of Marine Le Pen’s group.
He told EURACTIV, “I will never take any parliamentary action whatsoever against any member state wanting to protect its borders and safeguard its social security system.
“We will on the contrary support any initiative that unequivocally enhances freedom for member states.”
A Cameron spokesman said with the president of the European Parliament and the MEPs who are representing the Parliament in the negotiations were “useful”.
“They all offered their support for solutions in each of the four areas and, in particular, committed to work hard to ensure that the relevant secondary legislation on the emergency brake and child benefit is swiftly adopted by the Parliament.
“The prime minister also met with the chairs of the three largest groups in the European Parliament. All three made clear their support for the proposals on the table and said they were ready to take any necessary EU legislation through the European Parliament swiftly.”
Did Cameron dodge Farage?
Cameron, who met with French President Francois Hollande yesterday, was due to meet the Parliament’s Conference of Presidents this morning (16 February) behind closed doors, but that was cancelled at short notice.
Sources alleged that was because the prime minister wanted to avoid meeting UKIP leader Nigel Farage, as well as hard left and right MEPs.
Instead he invited EPP leader Weber and Socialists and Democrats leader Gianni Pittella to the British embassy in Brussels, before later returning to the Parliament to meet Schulz and Verhofstadt, one of the three Parliament ‘sherpas’. Elmar Brok MEP and Roberto Gualtieri are the other sherpas.
But he broke with protocol by entering through the underground car park, rather than the usual entrance for visiting dignitaries, sources said.
Cameron, who also met European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, made no public comment during his four-hour visit to Brussels.
Juncker, speaking before meeting Cameron, said he refused to even entertain the idea of Britain leaving the bloc.
“If I would say now that we have a plan B, this would indicate a kind of willingness of the Commission to envisage seriously that Britain could leave the European Union,” Juncker said.
Squeaky bum time
Asked if this was ‘squeaky bum time’ for the talks – a reference to the nervy run-in to the end of a football championship – the Commission said it had nothing to add to Juncker’s comments.
But a spokeswoman said the frenetic diplomacy would ensure “a well-prepared European Council”.
Tusk, meanwhile, repeated his warning that negotiations were at a “fragile” stage and nothing could be taken for granted.
“The proposal I have put on the table is a fair and balanced one,” Tusk said during a stopover in Athens on a tour to prepare the ground for the summit.
“It helps the UK to address all the concerns raised by Prime Minister Cameron, without compromising on our common freedoms and values,” he said. “There are still many difficult issues to solve.”
Discussing the emergency brake in Prague later the same day, he said, “It protects the freedom of movement, while helping the UK to address all its concerns when it comes to their specific system of in-work benefits.”
Tusk is due to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin tonight to discuss the deal.