By STEPHEN CASTLEJAN. NYT January 29, 2016
Monday 15 February 2016, by Carlos San Juan
With time running out if Britain is to schedule an early referendum on European Union membership, Prime Minister David Cameron was fighting with renewed urgency on Friday to win concessions that he hopes will persuade Britons to stay in the bloc.
The most contentious issue is a proposal to restrict welfare payments to non-British citizens of European Union countries, who have the right to live and work in Britain.
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Mr. Cameron wants the authority to limit those benefits, which typically supplement the income of people doing low-paid jobs, for European Union migrants who have been in the country for less than four years.
Mr. Cameron scrapped a planned visit to Sweden and Denmark on Friday, heading instead to Brussels for talks with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation bloc, and he will host a dinner in London on Sunday with another top European official, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council.
Continue reading the main story RELATED COVERAGE
Britain’s Prime Minister Defends Decision to Seek Vote on European UnionJAN. 24, 2013 Seeking Changes From E.U., David Cameron Outlines Conditions for Britain to StayNOV. 10, 2015 Echoes of the Past as David Cameron Enters Talks on Britain’s Future in European UnionDEC. 17, 2015 The stakes are high because a British decision to quit — a so-called Brexit — could deal a devastating blow to the European Union, which is already struggling to deal with a huge influx of migrants.
For Britain, much is at stake, too, as it could find itself outside the bloc’s single market, and the United States and other major powers have already said they think the British would be better off remaining a member.
Mr. Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum by the end of 2017, but he will schedule an earlier vote, most likely for late June, if he can negotiate changes to Britain’s relationship with the bloc to get what he calls a “better deal.”
Mr. Cameron effectively needs to reach a deal in mid-February, when members of the European Union will hold a summit meeting in Brussels. If there is no agreement then or soon after, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to hold the referendum before September, if not later.
A delay is regarded as likely to help those campaigning for Britain to leave the union, particularly if the migration crisis intensifies, making membership in the bloc seem less desirable.
For some countries, Mr. Cameron’s effort to limit some benefits to migrants is anathema because it would breach a crucial principle: that all European Union citizens are treated equally across the bloc.
The latest proposal would allow Britain to apply an “emergency brake” by withholding the benefits if there is evidence that its welfare system is being strained by non-Britons from the bloc.
The details of the plan remain in flux. At one end of a range of possibilities is a solution under which the law would be changed so that Britain, or any European Union nation, could restrict welfare payments for four years without the agreement of the European Commission or other European Union nations, providing certain criteria are met.
Other models would give other nations more power to block such a change, an idea that is less attractive to Mr. Cameron.
Mr. Cameron told BBC Radio Scotland on Friday that he was “encouraged that ideas are coming forward that have some force but we are not there yet, they are not yet strong enough.”
“The question with these brakes and ideas, it is very important how they are pulled, how long they last, how much strength they have and those are all of the things that I’ll be talking about in Brussels,” he said.
The talks on Sunday may prove even more important because Mr. Tusk is expected to circulate a document on the proposals as early as Monday.
Mr. Tusk is a citizen of Poland, one of the Eastern European nations from which many migrants in Britain come, and which are likely to oppose the changes Mr. Cameron seeks.
Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski of Poland said on Friday said that his country would “not accept a mechanism that denies social benefits to Poles living in the European Union,” Reuters reported.
At home, Mr. Cameron is under pressure from lawmakers in his party who are critical of the European Union, and who argue that he is asking for too little.
John Redwood, a former Conservative cabinet minister, told the BBC that the “emergency brake” plan was “an insult” and “a sick joke.”