Open Europe Blog

Cameron and Tusk do not see
eye-to-eye on EU free movement

The UK-Poland row over immigration continues. Now Polish PM Donald Tusk has waded in by saying that Poland would veto any EU treaty change aimed at striking down on access to benefits – including child benefit for children living in other EU countries. This is in response to David Cameron’s remarks on Sunday that:

“I think it’s wrong that someone from Poland who comes here and works hard – and I’m absolutely all in favour of that – but I don’t think we should be paying child benefit to their family back at home.” 

Somewhat confusingly, Cameron said one way of changing the rules was “the treaty change that I’ll be putting in place before the referendum that we’ll hold on Britain’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017”.

Tusk hit back, telling reporters in Warsaw that:

“If anyone, whether it is premier Cameron or anyone else, will want to change the European treaty to make this possible, Poland will veto it, today, tomorrow and forever,” 

The two men will have what we assume will be a somewhat tense phone conversation later today.

You know what we think of this row. However, whether we agree or disagree with the changes Cameron proposes – and it’s hard to see how the current EU rules around child benefits can stand – most of the changes around access to benefits could be sorted through altering EU directives and regulations. Those who favour the status quo point to the EU treaties’ passages on non-discrimination as a barrier to change.

However, the EU’s Rights of Residence (aka Free Movement) Directive already qualifies the right to access certain benefits on the basis of time resident in a country, so it would be a matter of agreeing to extend this already established principle. The rules on child benefit are governed by the EU’s Social Security Regulation. The Directive and Regulation are both decided though qualified majority, meaning that no single EU country has a veto, meaning Poland would need to muster a blocking minority to see off the changes. No need to touch the EU treaties (unlike an outright cap on immigration, for example). Ultimately, the devil would be in the detail.

But, again, a pragmatic compromise is fully possible. The Open Europe/Fresh Start reform conference next week will bring together some of the key players in this debate – including the head of the EU Affairs committee in Polish Parliament, Agnieszka Pomaska and the Bulgarian foreign minister, Kristian Vigenan – to try to replace the current emotional shouting match with a substance-based discussion.

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