The prime minister has promised to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU ahead of an “in-out” referendum before the end of 2017.
Though some reforms may be passed, as analysts from Stratfor note, they will not be passed in accordance with Cameron’s schedule. 2017 will be a crucial year for the bloc because Germany and France will hold general elections.
Neither Berlin nor Paris will be interested in introducing substantial reforms to the European institutional framework before the elections. Any treaty changes would only take place after 2017 and are unlikely to be implemented before the end of the decade, says Stratfor.
Germany, whose government officials have expressed alarm at the possibility of Britain leaving the EU, said on Wednesday (December 16) that it is ready to be “extremely helpful” to Cameron in his renegotiation efforts.
“The German government has a very great interest that Great Britain remains a member of the EU and in allowing Cameron to run a successful campaign,” said an unnamed senior German official cited by Reuters.
Britain’s push for EU reform will be addressed at a summit working dinner on Thursday evening (December 17). The German official expected the summit to lay the foundations for an agreement on EU reform in February, 2017.
Some German government officials have stressed that they cannot convince other — mainly eastern — European states to drop their opposition to Britain’s push for a four-year curb on welfare payments for EU migrants.
But they do want to keep Britain in the European Union, where they value its contribution on economic policy issues such as efforts to develop the bloc’s internal market, and its weight on security matters.
“The UK must sit in the driver’s seat, and not next to it,” said another German government official, speaking prior to Wednesday’s official pre-summit briefing.
Cameron has proposed making EU migrants wait four years before they become eligible for so-called in-work benefits, payments given to some in low-paid jobs to make work more attractive than claiming unemployment benefit.
The prime minister says the measure will tackle an important “pull factor” bringing migrants to Britain where they can claim social payments almost immediately.
Cameron has cited government estimates that up to 235,000 people from the European Economic Area – EU countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – were claiming in-work and out-of-work benefits as of March 2013 to prove his argument.
But Christian Dustmann, director of the independent Centre for Research and Analysis on Migration, said such figures do not tell the full story as they do not take into account how much EU migrants contribute to the British economy.
Poland is concerned about Cameron’s proposals
A paper Dustmann co-authored in 2014 showed that from 2001 to 2011, migrants from the ‘EU-15’ of western and southern EU countries had contributed 64 percent more in taxes than they received in benefits, while immigrants from central and eastern European countries gave 12 percent more than they took.
He said he expected the analysis would be much the same now, and this chimes with many workers from Poland — one of the main sources of migrants in the UK — who say they did not come to Britain for benefits, but to work.
Poland has expressed its concern about Cameron’s intention to restrict immigration or withdraw benefits for EU workers.
Przemek de Skuba Skwirczynski, a Polish-born banker, points to the 2011 census which shows that Poles — who now number more than 850,000 in Britain — were the most highly employed migrants in the country.
“The Poles are not coming here for benefits. They might be receiving in-work benefits as they learn about them … but the main driver of the Polish migration is work,” said Skwirczynski, who has little affection for the EU and ran in two elections for Britain’s anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Playing with fire
Now returned to the Conservative Party, he questions the government’s argument on benefits and says even if his adopted country left the EU — which he would like to happen — it would do little to deter Poles wanting a better life.
“Cutting these benefits won’t stop the migration,” he said.
Cameron must convince voters he has not only moved to curb immigration, which is regularly at the top of Britons’ concerns, but also that he has extracted concessions from the EU, if he wants people to vote to stay in the bloc.
That may prove difficult as, despite weeks of talks, European Commission and British officials have yet to find agreement and a host of EU leaders have criticised the plan as being discriminatory on grounds of nationality.
Saying Cameron is “open to ideas” on welfare, some analysts have suggested the British PM will be forced to compromise, something that pollsters suggest could fuel anti-EU sentiment and tip the referendum vote in favour of leaving.
But whether he will succeed in curbing benefits or not, some Polish workers, like English teacher Patryk Malinski, say the legacy of the prime minister’s push to put EU migrants at the heart of his renegotiation will be a more-divided country.
“I think they are playing with fire because I don’t think they realise that actually a lot of British people now view it as a big issue because they have been told to do so,” Malinski said.
“It’s dividing communities.”