UK ideas on migrants’ benefits to be debated ‘calmly’, say European leaders

David Cameron’s proposals on benefits likely to be strongly opposed by eastern Europe

The European Commission took a cautious approach to British prime minister David Cameron's announcement yesterday that he will curb EU migrants' access to benefits, saying this would have to be discussed "calmly and carefully".

Responding to questions from journalists in Brussels, a European Commission spokesman said the ideas put forward by the UK would “have to be examined without drama” and would be discussed with other EU partners once the proposals “materialised into a specific legal instrument”.

Mr Juncker spoke with Mr Cameron by phone on Thursday, while the British prime minister also discussed the benefits issue with German chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of his much awaited speech.

But in a sign of possible strong resistance from some member states, particularly those in eastern Europe, Poland's deputy foreign minister, Rafal Trzaskowski, tweeted his opposition to Mr Cameron's plans.

“There won’t be any approval for limits in freedom of movement for workers, which is one of the EU’s pillars and the greatest benefit from EU membership,” he wrote.

Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister who previously clashed with Mr Cameron over immigration, succeeds Herman Van Rompuy as European Council president on Monday, and is likely to be a key figure in the debate over British membership of the EU ahead of a possible 2017 referendum.

Calm dialogue

On Friday the European Commission promised a “calm dialogue”, with its spokesman stressing that it is “up to national lawmakers to fight against abuses of the system. EU law allows for this.”

The commission has consistently pointed out that member states are responsible for ensuring that their own benefits systems are not abused, arguing that EU free movement rules already impose restrictions. This was borne out in a judgment by the European Court of Justice earlier this month, which ruled that a Romanian woman and her child living in Germany were not entitled to certain non-contributory benefits under EU law. It ruled that "economically inactive EU citizens who go to another member state solely in order to obtain social assistance may be excluded from certain social benefits".

Asked whether Mr Juncker was committed to preserving the rules on free movement, the spokesman said: “President Juncker is on the record [as saying] that the freedom of movement is a fundamental liberty enshrined in the treaties, but there are other aspects to it, like abuse of the system, social security, which is not a community competence ... There are certain things that can be effectively discussed and analysed with partners.”

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent