British PM’s welfare plan breaches key EU principle, warns Kenny

Cameron signals no deal likely until February, making June earliest date for referendum

Enda Kenny: Details remained to be worked out on all of the British prime minister’s reform demands. Photograph: Bloomberg

Enda Kenny: Details remained to be worked out on all of the British prime minister’s reform demands. Photograph: Bloomberg

 

David Cameron’s proposal to make citizens of other EU countries wait four years to qualify for welfare benefits touches on a fundamental principle of the European Union, the Taoiseach has warned.

Speaking in Brussels at the start of a two-day meeting of EU leaders, Mr Kenny said that details remained to be worked out on all of the British prime minister’s reform demands but acknowledged that the issue of benefit payments to migrants from within the EU was the most contentious.

“This is an issue which is a fundamental principle of the European Union and many of the other countries have already stated their view, that they don’t want discrimination against citizens from that point of view. Prime minister Cameron has said that there are a number of ways that you can arrive at a conclusion and I expect the political details of that will be the subject of some discussion here,” said the Taoiseach.

Mr Cameron had initially hoped to reach a deal this week with Britain’s EU partners on the reforms he says are needed to persuade British voters to back remaining in the EU in a referendum due before the end of 2017. He has now acknowledged that there will be no deal until at least February, making June 2016 the earliest possible date for the referendum.

On his way into the meeting in Brussels, Mr Cameron said that while he expected no definitive deal to be reached at this summit, progress would be made.

“Tonight, here in Brussels, we are going to have a conversation dedicated to Britain’s renegotiation of its position in Europe and I want to see real progress in all of the four areas that I have mentioned . . . We’re not pushing for a deal tonight but we’re pushing for real momentum so that we can get this deal done.”

Core issues

The demands focus on four “baskets” of issues: ensuring that the Euro zone cannot discriminate against non-members; cutting business regulation; securing an opt-out for Britain from the EU’s commitment to an “ever closer union” and win a bigger role for national parliaments; and reducing the number of people coming to Britain from elsewhere in the EU by curbing their welfare payments.

European council president Donald Tusk, who is chairing the summit, said he had no doubt about the goodwill of all the parties involved in the discussion of Mr Cameron’s demands.

“But it doesn’t change the fact that some parts of the British proposal seem unacceptable. However, if prime minister Cameron persuades leaders tonight that we can work together to find solutions regarding all four baskets, then we will have a real chance to strike a deal in February,” he said.

The other main issue at the summit is the migration crisis, which has seen an estimated 1.5 million people crossing into the EU illegally so far this year, placing unprecedented pressure on Europe’s external borders and forcing EU member states to introduce identity checks at some internal EU border crossings.

Predicting a contentious discussion, the Taoiseach said “the status quo cannot continue” and Mr Tusk welcomed a proposal from the European Commission for a new EU border guard and more stringent protection for the external borders of the Schengen common travel area.

“Europe cannot remain vulnerable when Schengen states are not able to effectively protect their borders. If we reject the commission’s proposal, we will have to find another, but I’m afraid, an equally painful solution,” he said.