Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated that he intends to push back a planned referendum on membership of the European Union, admitting that the migrant crisis which has swept Europe this year makes a ‘Brexit’ more likely. He hopes that delaying the referendum will buy him time to persuade his fellow EU leaders to grant concessions on workers’ benefits.
As the number of migrants entering Europe illegally this year rose exponentially during the latter half of this year, crashing through previous records, polling on the question of a British exit from the EU (‘Brexit’) has steadily moved toward a “leave” result.
Newly release statistics from Eurostat suggest that the numbers claiming asylum across the EU have just topped the one million mark. However, Germany alone has registered one million asylum seekers on her EASY computer system, suggesting that the figure may be a gross underestimate.
Speaking to the Spectator, Mr Cameron has said that the massive influx is causing the British people to shy away from membership of the EU. But in the longer term, he appeared to suggest that this may work in favour of those who want to remain within the bloc.
“I think with both the eurozone crisis and the migration crisis, the short term impact is for people to think, ‘oh Christ, push Europe away from me, it’s bringing me problems’,” he said.
“I think the longer term reaction might actually be, well if they are going to have a single currency and they are on our doorstep and they are going to try and make it work, let’s make sure our relationship with them works and then we have safeguards, not least for our vital financial services industry so that the system doesn’t work against us.”
He summarised: “The short term reaction can be ‘get me out of here’, the longer term reaction is ‘we must find a better way of working with our partners because we share the same challenges’.”
Until recently Downing Street had been indicated that it wanted to wrap up a renegotiation of certain aspects of the membership treaties as quickly as possible, allowing it to put the results to the British people in an in/out referendum as quickly as possible before that “leave” result hardened.
Mr Cameron has been travelling around Eastern Europe for the last 48 hours, trying to drum up support for his proposals, which include demands that Britain be allowed to introduce new laws barring migrants from claiming in work benefits until they have worked in Britain for five years. But the idea has not gone down well with Eastern European states. They claim that such laws would contravene basic commitments to equality and freedom of movement which the EU is based on.
Following talks in the Romanian Capital of Bucharest with President Klaus Iohannis, Mr Cameron announced: “I want Britain to stay in a reformed European Union. That’s why I am seeking important reforms to address the concerns of the British people about the status quo.”
Cameron acknowledged that “Romanians, alongside other Europeans, make a valuable contribution to the United Kingdom in a wide range of fields, from finance to science and medicine.”
However, he added: “Net migration in the UK is running at well over 300,000 a year and that is not sustainable. So we do need to find ways to allow member states to make changes to their social security systems that will help them to deal with this issue.”
“It was never envisaged that free movement would trigger quite such vast numbers of people moving across our continent. Countries have got to be able to cope with all the pressures that can bring – on our schools, our hospitals and other public services.”
But following the talks, the Polish PM Beata Szydlo told reporters that while there was a “common direction,” and while she hoped there was a solution which would enable Britain to remain within the EU, the two leaders did not see “eye-to-eye” regarding Britain’s demands.
She added that while she respected Britain’s right to make decisions about its own welfare system, she had reservations over demands to curb migrant workers’ benefits. Mr Cameron had to respect the “basic principle” of freedom of movement for people within the EU, she insisted.
On Wednesday night, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk told a meeting of MEPs that every other EU member state is against the planned benefit changes, the Telegraph has reported.
“We have no consensus,” Mr Tusk is understood to have said. “In fact, 27 member states are very sceptical. Indeed, they are against.”
He also warned that Mr Cameron “will not be satisfied one hundred per cent” with the outcome of the renegotiation.
According to one attendee, Mr Tusk admitted that it is a “political priority” to keep Britain within the bloc, but he is “not entitled to say this should be delivered at any cost”.
Following his stay in Bucharest Mr Cameron travelled on to Warsaw last night for talks with the Polish Prime Minister, in a bid to win her backing for his demands.