UK’s Cameron to restrict benefits for immigrants

Oil Scarff, AFP/ POOL | British Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration to factory workers in Rocester, central England on November 28, 2014.

Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday promised tough curbs on welfare for EU migrants to counter a surge in arrivals and warned European leaders that blocking them could put Britain's EU membership in doubt.


He said the package of reforms would require changes to European Union treaties but said he was "confident" he could deliver a deal.

Immigration to Britain has increased sharply in the past decade and Cameron is under intense pressure to address voters' concerns ahead of the May 2015 general election.

His Conservative party is losing support to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which advocates leaving the EU altogether as the only way to curb EU migration.

In a long-awaited speech on the issue, Cameron stopped short of calling for a cap on new arrivals or a mooted "emergency brake", which had caused consternation in EU capitals.

But he announced plans to make EU workers wait four years to receive income tax credits and access social housing, and vowed to stop migrants claiming benefits for children living elsewhere in Europe.

FRANCE 24’s Bénédicte Paviot said that the benefits Cameron was aiming at “are really important benefits that a lot of people here feel are not fair that these immigrants are getting.”

She added that Cameron had sent a clear message saying: “Don’t come to the UK if you don’t already have a job, if you lose a job or don’t have a job after six month - or you will be deported.”

Treaty change or EU exit

Cameron said the reforms, intended to make Britain less attractive, were an "absolute requirement" of his bid to renegotiate Britain's membership of the bloc before holding an in-out referendum in 2017.

"There is no doubt that this package as a whole will require some treaty change and I am confident we can negotiate that," he said.

Cameron insists he wants Britain to stay in the European Union but has refused to say if he would campaign for an exit if he fails to achieve the reforms he wants.

He said Friday: "If our concerns fall on deaf ears and we cannot put our relationship with the EU on a better footing, then of course I rule nothing out."

Cameron briefed German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on his speech beforehand, aides said.

Afterwards, a Commission spokesman said the EU's executive arm was ready to discuss the proposals "calmly and carefully", adding: "We have to see what can be done without shutting the door."

'Open borders'

Cameron said Britain had been built on immigration and condemned "deeply unpatriotic" calls to shut its borders.

But he said its economic growth and generous welfare system had made it a "magnetic destination" for migrants, and the government had to take back some control.

Cameron was forced to abandon a promise to cut net migration to Britain to under 100,000, after official figures on Thursday revealed it rose from 182,000 to 260,000 last year.

But he insisted action was still possible, and said migrants should have a job before arriving and could be deported if they do not find work after six months.

He also repeated calls for restrictions on the rights of citizens of new EU nations to work in Britain until their economies improved in line with other members.

The Institute of Directors (IoD) business group responded positively to the new proposals, as did some of Cameron's eurosceptic backbenchers.

However, UKIP leader Nigel Farage said they would likely be challenged in the EU courts.

"While he may have taken away, potentially, one or two of the pull factors, you cannot control immigration as a member of the European Union because we have total open borders with the other member states," Farage told the BBC.

Since it took office in 2010, the coalition government has tightened visa restrictions for non-EU migrants, but European rules on freedom of movement mean it has little control over arrivals from within the bloc.

Reports last month that Cameron was considering a cap on migrant numbers were condemned by the European Commission, and Merkel reportedly warned the prime minister that he was approaching a "point of no return".

Cameron said Friday that freedom of movement was "key to being part of the single market".

But he added: "I say to our European partners -- we have real concerns. Our concerns are not outlandish or unreasonable. We deserve to be heard, and we must be heard."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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