BRUSSELS (AFP) - The European Union is examining a possible "emergency brake" on migration into Britain as an alternative to David Cameron's unpopular demands for limits to migrant benefits, diplomatic sources said Thursday.
The British prime minister's bid to prevent EU migrants from claiming welfare benefits during their first four years in the country is the major hurdle to a reform deal ahead of Britain's referendum on EU membership in 2017.
EU president Donald Tusk said this week that reaching a deal to prevent a "Brexit" from the bloc would be impossible at a summit next week due to a lack of consensus on the welfare issue. But he added that an accord was likely in February.
"Britain wants to make sure it can defend against the abuse of welfare benefits. We could imagine other ways to do that - it could be an emergency brake," one of the European diplomatic sources told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The clause would allow Britain to put limits on migration from the other 27 EU countries if its public services are overwhelmed or its welfare system is being abused, the sources said.
Any such system would be part of a package which could be offered to Britain at a summit in February, and would only be implemented if it votes to remain an EU member in a referendum Cameron has promised by the end of 2017, they said.
Cameron also wants reforms giving greater fairness for countries like Britain that do not use the euro currency, an opt-out from the EU's aspiration of "ever closer union", and greater economic competitiveness.
A similar promise of exceptional measures was made to keep Denmark in the EU in 1992, and the measures agreed afterwards.
Cameron is currently touring Europe in an attempt to win the favourable deal he says he needs if he is to campaign to stay in the EU.
But there is widespread opposition amongst Cameron's EU counterparts to his bid to limit migrant benefits, which they say goes against the bloc's fundamental principle of free movement.
In an opening salvo ahead of the Dec 17-18 summit, Cameron warned in an interview published Thursday that the migration crisis sweeping Europe could lead to Britain voting to leave the bloc.
"With... the migration crisis, the short-term impact is for people to think, 'Oh Christ, push Europe away from me, it's bringing me problems'," he told Britain's Spectator magazine.