Cameron pushing EU for a 'better deal'

British PM in urgent talks with bloc's officials on restricting benefits to non-UK citizens

LONDON • With time running out if Britain is to schedule an early referendum on European Union membership, Prime Minister David Cameron has been fighting with renewed urgency to win concessions that he hopes will persuade Britons to stay in the bloc.

The most contentious issue is a proposal to restrict welfare payments to non-British citizens of EU countries, who have the right to live and work in Britain.

Mr Cameron wants the authority to limit those benefits, which typically supplement the income of people doing low-paid jobs, for EU migrants who have been in the country for less than four years.

He scrapped a planned visit to Sweden and Denmark on Friday, heading instead to Brussels for talks with Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation bloc, and he will host a dinner in London today with another top European official, Mr Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council.

The stakes are high because a British decision to quit - a so-called Brexit - could deal a devastating blow to the EU, which is already struggling to deal with a huge influx of migrants.

For Britain, much is at stake too, as it could find itself outside the bloc's single market, and the United States and other major powers have said they think Britain would be better off remaining a member.

Mr Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum by the end of next year, but he will schedule an earlier vote, most likely for late June, if he can negotiate changes to Britain's relationship with the bloc to get what he calls a "better deal" .

Mr Cameron effectively needs to reach a deal in mid-February, when EU members will hold a summit meeting in Brussels. If there is no agreement then or soon afterwards, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to hold the referendum before September, if not later.

A delay is regarded as likely to help those campaigning for Britain to leave the union, particularly if the migration crisis intensifies, making membership seem less desirable.

Mr Cameron's effort to limit some benefits to migrants is anathema, some countries said, because it would breach a crucial principle: that all EU citizens are treated equally across the bloc.

The latest proposal would allow Britain to apply an "emergency brake" by withholding the benefits if there was evidence that its welfare system was being strained by non-Britons from the bloc.

The details of the plan remained in flux. "The question with these brakes and ideas, it is very important how they are pulled, how long they last, how much strength they have and those are all of the things that I'll be talking about in Brussels," Mr Cameron said.

The talks today may prove even more important because Mr Tusk is expected to circulate a document on the proposals as early as tomorrow.

A ComRes poll released yesterday found that 54 per cent of Britons would vote to remain in the EU if a referendum was held tomorrow versus 36 per cent who would vote to leave, and 10 per cent who are undecided.

NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Cameron pushing EU for a 'better deal''. Print Edition | Subscribe