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PM places migrant benefit changes at heart of EU reform demands

Published 10/11/2015

David Cameron is writing to European Council president Donald Tusk, right, setting out his EU reform agenda
David Cameron is writing to European Council president Donald Tusk, right, setting out his EU reform agenda

David Cameron has put restricting benefits for migrants at the heart of his demands for European Union reform as he kicked off a new phase in the renegotiation process.

Setting out four "challenging" goals and insisting a new membership deal must be "legally binding", the Prime Minister said the UK should also be exempted from the commitment to "ever-closer union", get protection from eurozone integration and see improvements in competitiveness.

The intervention, in a speech at the Chatham House think-tank, came as Mr Cameron sent a six-page letter to European Council president Donald Tusk spelling out his renegotiation checklist.

In the letter, he said he hoped to to get an agreement at the "earliest possible opportunity" but the "priority is to get the substance right".

A European Commission spokeswoman said it would analyse the letter in detail, adding that there appeared to be "some feasible elements, some difficult and some highly problematic".

Admitting that some people would accuse him of seeking too little, Mr Cameron insisted he was asking for what Britain "needs" and that the package had been "carefully designed".

The premier reiterated his determination to secure tougher restrictions on migrants' access to welfare, arguing that 40% of recent European Economic Area migrants were receiving an average of around £6,000 a year of in-work benefits.

However, Mr Cameron did hint that he may be willing to make concessions on the key issue of a four-year bar on access to in-work benefits and housing.

"We have proposed that people coming to Britain from the EU must live here and contribute for four years before they qualify for in-work benefits or social housing, and that we should end the practice of sending child benefit overseas," Mr Cameron said.

"Now, I understand how difficult some of these welfare issues are for other member states, and I am open to different ways of dealing with this issue.

"But we do need to secure arrangements that deliver on the objective set out in the Conservative Party manifesto to control migration from the European Union."

He added: "Ultimately, if we are going to reduce the numbers coming here, we need action that gives greater control of migration from the EU."

Denying that he was embarked on "Mission Impossible" or asking for anything "outlandish or absurd", he said: "I have every confidence that we will achieve an agreement that works for Britain and works for our European partners.

"If and when we do so ... I will campaign to keep Britain inside a reformed European Union.

"But if we can't reach such an agreement and if Britain's concerns were to be met with a deaf ear, which I do not believe will happen, then we will have to think again about whether this European Union is right for us.

"As I have said before - I rule nothing out."

Mr Cameron said the referendum, due by the end of 2017, was "perhaps the most important decision the British people will have to take at the ballot box in our lifetimes". The decision would be taken on a "practical" assessment of what was best for the UK, rather than any "emotional" ties to Europe.

But he warned that if the country voted to leave, it would not find itself in an economic "land of milk and honey", and would have to forge similar trade ties with Europe without having as much influence.

The Prime Minister also stressed that so-called Brexit would have implications for national security.

"Our membership of the EU does matter for our national security and for the security of our allies, which is one reason why our friends in the world strongly urge us to remain in the EU," he said.

"The EU, like Nato and our membership of the UN Security Council, is a tool that a British prime minister uses to get things done in the world, and protect our country.

"If the British prime minister was no longer present at European summits, we would lose that voice and therefore permanently change our ability to get things done in the world.

"We have every right to do that as a sovereign nation. But we should do so with our eyes open."

Mr Cameron flatly rejected suggestions - including from London Mayor Boris Johnson - that a vote to leave could merely lead to a second referendum and a better deal for the UK.

"The renegotiation is happening right now. And the referendum that follows will be a once- in-a-generation choice," he said.

Mr Cameron said he was calling for a "clear, legally binding and irreversible agreement to end Britain's obligation to work towards an ever-closer union".

"That will mean that Britain can never be entangled in a political union against our will or be drawn into any kind of United States of Europe," he said.

He also urged more powers for national parliaments - although he stopped short of demanding a "red card" system that would have given MPs a veto over EU legislation, acknowledging that would cause "gridlock".

"We want to see a new arrangement where groups of national parliaments can come together and reject European laws which are not in their national interest," he said.

Mr Cameron said the Government wanted to look at the role of the European Court of Justice, and ensure that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights could not be used for "spurious" legal challenges.

And he mooted bringing in German-style arrangements to keep a check on the scope of EU powers.

"The Constitutional Court in Germany retains the right to review whether essential constitutional freedoms are respected when powers are transferred to Europe," he said.

"It also reserves the right to review legal acts by European institutions and courts to check that they remain within the scope of the EU's powers, or whether they have overstepped the mark."

Mr Cameron said he wanted "clear and binding principles" to protect non-eurozone countries such as Britain, guaranteeing that there is "no discrimination and no disadvantage for any business on the basis of the currency of their country".

Changes in the eurozone, such as the creation of a banking union, "must be voluntary for non-euro countries, never compulsory".

British taxpayers should also never fund operations to support the euro, he said.

Mr Cameron said significant progress had already been made on improving the EU's competitiveness, with an 80% drop in legislation proposed by the new Commission and moves to complete the Single Market. He highlighted the abolition of mobile phone data roaming charges.

But he insisted there was still a need to cut regulation, and there should be a "target to cut the total burden on business".

Theresa May insisted that counterparts across Europe were keen to tackle the "abuse" of freedom of movement rules.

But the Home Secretary declined to put a number on the amount of EU migrants who might be deterred from coming to the UK as a result of the welfare squeeze proposed by the Prime Minister.

At an event in central London she said: "Free movement has been and remains part of that concept of European union. But what I have found, discussing with interior ministers from other countries, is that there is a growing concern about the abuse of free movement that has been taking place and ways in which it is possible for people to come and gain rights within the European Union.

"So we will be looking at those issues, looking, yes, at the benefits. The concept that people shouldn't be using that free movement in order to come and claim benefits is one that both I and the Prime Minister, and others, have spoken about before."

She added: "What I have seen in my dealings with interior ministers is a growing concern about these issues and a growing desire to sit down and talk about them and find solutions that will, yes, benefit the UK but also benefit the European Union as a whole."

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