Cameron woos 'unhappy' EU leaders on deal to avert 'Brexit'

British Prime Minister David Cameron (centre) after a meeting with Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (not seen) in Warsaw, Poland on Feb 5, 2016.
British Prime Minister David Cameron (centre) after a meeting with Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (not seen) in Warsaw, Poland on Feb 5, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

WARSAW (AFP) - British Prime Minister David Cameron ran into Polish resistance Friday (Feb 5) to his plans to curb benefits to European Union migrants, as he launched two weeks of high-stakes diplomacy aimed at reaching a deal to avert a "Brexit."

Cameron must convince his fellow 27 EU leaders to back controversial reform proposals at a leaders' summit in Brussels on Feb 18-19.

The risks were underlined Friday (Feb 5) by a new poll showing 45 per cent of Britons now want to leave the EU - up three percentage points from a week earlier - with only 36 per cent who want Britain to remain in the 28-member club.

Ahead of talks with Cameron in Warsaw, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told Britain's The Times that the benefits proposal "doesn't make me happy".

Her tone mellowed at a press conference with the British leader who stressed their countries' "shared interests" and "strategic partnership," in both the EU and Nato.

But while saying it was "very important" to Poland for Britain to stay in the EU, she added: "There are always topics that need to be ironed out." "Over a million Poles live and work in Britain. Their work is growing Britain's GDP and we want them to enjoy the same kind of opportunities for development as Britons," Szydlo said.

Sources close to the negotiations told AFP on Thursday (Feb 4) that so far no European leaders are satisfied with a draft agreement for a deal to avoid a "Brexit."

The so-called Visegrad Four - the central European states of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia - say they will not accept any plan that discriminates against hundreds of thousands of their citizens working in Britain.

Central Europeans have flocked to Britain in search of jobs and a better life since their poorer ex-communist countries joined the EU in 2004.

While many are gainfully employed, the influx has nonetheless prompted criticism that the migrants are draining Britain's generous welfare system.

Poland's influential governing party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said he was "very pleased" after Friday's (Feb 5) talks with Cameron.

Kaczynski is widely seen as the real deal-maker in Szydlo's right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) government that took office after winning an unprecedented majority in October's election.

"We've gained a great deal," Kaczynski told reporters, adding that Poles living in Britain will enjoy "full protection" of their rights to benefits, including a controversial "allowance for children living in Poland."

Kaczynski also hailed Britain's "readiness for wide-ranging cooperation on security." Rattled by Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, Warsaw is lobbying Nato allies like Britain to boost troop numbers along the alliance's vulnerable eastern flank at a July summit in the Polish capital.

A draft agreement unveiled on Monday (Feb 1) by EU president Donald Tusk - a former Polish premier - includes a four-year "emergency brake" limiting welfare payments to migrants, as well as a "red card" system for national parliaments to overrule draft EU laws.

Initial reactions from European capitals show that "nobody's happy" with it, one European source said on Thursday (Feb 4).

If Cameron gets an agreement by the EU summit, he will campaign for Britain to remain in the EU in an in-out referendum that is likely to be held in June.

He was to follow-up his talks in Warsaw with a stop in Denmark later Friday (Feb 5).

European diplomats in Brussels are set to hold their first full talks on the new proposals on Friday (Feb 5), and will meet again next Thursday (Feb 11) in a bid to iron out their differences.

Cameron has been in frequent contact with French President Francois Hollande, who warned Wednesday (Feb 3) that there should be no more changes to the deal at the summit itself, and has expressed concern over Tusk's proposals for protections for non-eurozone countries.