The British Prime Minister David Cameron will meet his counterparts on Thursday in Brussels during a summit. It will be an opportunity to pursue the ongoing negotiations on the re-balancing of sovereignty between London and Brussels ahead of a UK membership referendum. A particularly controversial point is linked to Cameron’s demand to curb social benefits for European workers. This has been the most controversial point since it puts at stake the freedom of movement within the EU. Poland, which has the biggest community of nationals in the UK, has reacted the most negatively so far.

Within his reform list to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership, Cameron wants European migrants to work for at least four years in the UK before having the right to ask for welfare payments.

If Cameron doesn’t achieve this point, British citizens would almost be divided fifty-fifty on whether to remain in the EU, according to a recent survey by think tank Open Europe.

Tackling the abuse of free movement is understandable, for instance, by ending the practice of sending child benefits overseas, said Michal Boni, Polish member of the centre-right group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP).

However, according to Boni, this should not undermine the principle of free movement, one of the main pillars of the EU treaties.

Workers’ rights need to be respected and all European workers should be treated equally, regardless of whether they come from Eastern or Western EU countries, stressed Boni during the weekly Euranet Plus “U Talking to Me?” debate.

“We need to avoid the abuse of free movement, but I don’t agree with this four years for waiting for full welfare for workers. Because I think workers are working and need to work under clear conditions and those conditions should be similar in the European Union,” Boni said.

At the end of 2014, over 850,000 Poles were living in the UK, according to British national figures. Poland would therefore be directly hit by the proposal.

However, for Sajjad Karim, British member of the European Conservative and Reformists Group (ECR) in the European Parliament, the issue is not about accepting or not accepting European migrants since these limits on social benefits would not concern all workers.

“Workers coming to the United Kingdom, we have no problem with that. The issue is the entitlements and benefits of certain people when they are not employed at a rate from which they can sustain themselves,” Karim explained during the “U Talking to Me?” debate.

“But if you have a situation where, for instance, somebody from Poland is working in the UK, they are not in receipt of benefits, but they are working full time and supporting themselves, but they become ill, then yes, they are entitled to benefits in those circumstances,” he said.

Karim considered the proposal as a global reform on better managing the free movement of people in the interest of all the EU and it should already be part of the current negotiation on the reforms plan.

“Managing the numbers of people that are able to move from one member state to another, and actually this is in the overall interest of the EU to discuss this. It is not an issue that is a red line for us, but it is certainly should not be an issue that EU is ever going to shy away from discussing because it has to be a part from our overall plan on what basis can people move from one member state to another, so why not having this in part of the reform package now,” Karim said.

Protecting the single market for non-Eurozone members

Apart from restricting welfare benefits to EU migrants, there are other points on Cameron’s list which have better chance to be in line with EU partners.

Boosting competitiveness by reducing the “burden” of red tape, but also protecting the single market for Britain and the nine non-euro countries, which includes Poland, are indeed not facing huge opposition from other member states.

Michal Boni saw this as a good improvement, as long as it doesn’t affect the path to euro integration.

“We don’t want to have two kinds of member states in the EU when we are talking of single market, but on the other hand, I don’t want to stop the way to euro integration due to the decision of particular countries,” Boni said.

“So I think that we need to find a practical solution with approval of the decisions of some countries, as the UK for example, but not to stop the way in the future of some countries.”

Cameron is trying to reach a deal with EU leaders ahead of a referendum on whether to the UK should stay or leave the EU, which is expected to be held by the end of 2016.

Donalds Tusk, president of the EU Council, said last week that the discussions during the European Summit in Brussels, this week, on December 17 and 18, “should pave the way for a deal in February.”

  • Author: Laeticia Markakis, Euranet Plus News Agency

Listen to the whole debate below (or watch it above)

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