David Cameron wrests major concession from EU

British Prime Minister David Cameron speaking to factory staff at the Siemens plant in Chippenham, southern England, on Feb 2.
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaking to factory staff at the Siemens plant in Chippenham, southern England, on Feb 2.PHOTO: REUTERS

Britain allowed to stall welfare payments to new EU migrants in last-ditch effort to keep it in bloc

•British Prime Minister David Cameron has scored a major victory in his battle to amend his country's European Union membership after EU officials unveiled proposals allowing the UK to stall the payment of welfare and social security benefits to new EU migrants.

The move, which breaks with the EU's fundamental principle that its citizens can settle wherever they want and must be treated equally in all its member-states, is contained in a "new settlement" package of reforms made public yesterday by Mr Donald Tusk, the European Union's top official, in a last-ditch effort aimed at keeping Britain in the 28-nation bloc.

But the package still has to be approved by all European governments before an EU summit scheduled for Feb 18, and accepted by the British electorate in a referendum now predicted to take place in June.

With his own ruling Conservative party deeply split over Britain's continued membership in the EU, Mr Cameron promised his electorate that he will renegotiate the country's terms of membership, and give voters the chance to decide whether the deal is sufficient to keep Britain in the EU.

Some of the demands Mr Cameron put to his European colleagues were symbolic, such as getting a guarantee that Britain would be exempt from any attempt to replace existing member-states with a potential "United States of Europe".

Under the deal on offer, Britain will be allowed to seek an exemption from its obligation to treat EU citizens equally to its own citizens if the British can prove that their social security services are "overwhelmed" by foreign claimants.

Others were more significant, such as Mr Cameron's demand that, although Britain remains determined to stay outside the euro single currency zone, the City of London, Europe's top financial centre, should not be discriminated against in future European rules and investment legislation.

Yet by far the most controversial has been the British demand to be granted an exception to the need to provide incoming EU workers with social security benefits offered to British citizens.

At the moment, such EU citizens - assumed to total around 1.5 million in the UK - are entitled to payments from the first day of their arrival, and although no accurate figures exist, abuse of the system is assumed to be widespread.

EU citizens who work in the UK also benefit from tax rebates and credits which, again, are assumed to be substantial.

Most European governments, and particularly the East Europeans who account for most of the workers who come to the UK, objected to the British demands as being contrary to the ethos of the EU.

But European officials, desperate to avoid a bruising battle which could paralyse the continent, have now come up with a compromise.

Under the deal on offer, Britain will be allowed to seek an exemption from its obligation to treat EU citizens equally to its own citizens if the British can prove that their social security services are "overwhelmed" by foreign claimants.

This "emergency brake" is only temporary for a number of years, and must be backed up with evidence that Britain is really faced with an uncontrollable number of claims from EU migrants.

But in a further concession to the British, Mr Cameron's government is to be given the go-ahead to invoke this "emergency brake" almost straightaway, meaning that by the time Britons go to vote on the deal in June, restrictions on welfare payments to EU migrants will already be in place.

And that, both EU and British officials hope, should be enough to persuade a majority of Britons to vote for their country to stay in Europe.

The pitfalls remain considerable. There is no deal on protecting London's financial markets from further EU regulation, as the British want. And even the concessions on offer may not be approved by all other member-states, as they have to be.

Still, a spokesman for Mr Cameron has called the latest EU proposals "a significant breakthrough". Mr Cameron will soon embark on a tour of European capitals; he can expect the haggling to continue until the very last moment before the Feb 18 summit.

But the worst of the negotiations between the EU and Britain appears to be over and, like a quick- change artist, Mr Cameron is now readying himself to discard the anti-European position he adopted during the diplomatic negotiations, and present himself instead as a man committed to Britain staying in Europe.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2016, with the headline 'Cameron wrests major concession from EU'. Print Edition | Subscribe