Cameron Urged to Back Down on Demands as EU `Brexit' Clash Looms

  • EU leaders likely to oppose welfare demands at Thursday talks
  • U.K. says it's for other nations to come up with alternatives

European Union leaders will oppose the U.K.’s demand for EU reform at a Thursday summit unless Prime Minister David Cameron abandons a plan to restrict benefits to foreigners, according to senior EU diplomats.

EU leaders will probably reject Cameron’s proposal to force EU migrants to the U.K. to wait four years before they qualify for welfare payments, said four diplomats, all from different nations. Several governments are furious about both the substance of his demands and the style of negotiation, which recently included a request to revise the bloc’s underlying treaty, they said, asking not to be named because talks are ongoing.

Amid anti-Europe sentiment in his party and country, Cameron is seeking to win back powers from the EU and obtain greater protection for U.K. interests to present to the British electorate before holding a referendum on ending membership in the EU -- a so-called Brexit -- before the end of 2017. Cameron, who has said he wants the U.K. to remain in a reformed bloc, may be pinning his hopes on a clash with leaders in Brussels as a means to bolster his domestic audience.

The British government has said Cameron isn’t considering softening his stance on the migration issue, nor is he looking at different options to take to the summit. “The whole renegotiation is difficult, it’s taking time; it’s tough what I’m asking for,” Cameron said earlier this month.

‘No Taboos’

The diplomats, from eastern and central European countries, variously described Cameron’s calls for changes to welfare payments as part of a broader package of EU reforms as outrageous, insensitive to the interests of other nations, potentially dangerous and overly optimistic. Two said governments saw his benefits proposal as a red line and that Cameron will have to come up with a less contentious alternative if he is to have any chance of getting a deal.

After numerous one-on-one meetings between the prime minister and his EU counterparts this year, the Dec. 17 summit will be the first time all 28 leaders sit around a table for a substantial discussion on the subject.

“The stakes are so high that we cannot escape a serious debate, with no taboos,” EU President Donald Tusk, who will lead the summit, said on Tuesday in an invitation letter to the leaders.

The electorate is evenly split with 50 percent of British voters, when excluding undecided individuals, saying they would choose to leave the EU, according to a poll by ICM published on Tuesday.

While Cameron initially sought to clinch a deal at the December summit, the lack of consensus on the migration issue means the leaders’ meeting instead will just be a discussion, with attempts at an agreement scheduled for the next gathering in February. All 27 other EU nations have to agree to any U.K. change so even if Cameron can convince his closest allies, such as the Dutch and Danish, it will count for nothing if he cannot overcome other objections.

Pandora’s Box

Speaking to reporters before an EU meeting on Monday, U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said it was for other leaders, not Cameron, to come up with alternatives.

“So far we haven’t heard any counter-proposals, we haven’t heard any alternative suggestions that will deliver the same effect in a different way,” he said. The U.K. proposal to deny migrants benefits for four years is “at the moment the only proposal on the table.”

Diplomats said nations consider Cameron’s benefits proposal discriminatory and, if allowed, it would open up a Pandora’s Box of demands from other countries to follow similar paths. They said European governments facing significant anti-EU and far-right opposition were particularly keen to avoid setting a precedent.

There is still an escape route for the British prime minister. European governments are still ready to find an agreement suitable to all and keep the U.K. in because of the counter-balance the nation provides to German and French power, the diplomats said. If Cameron could find a way to make the welfare changes not discriminatory -- by withholding benefits from British citizens for four years too, for example -- it was unlikely to be opposed, two diplomats said.

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