David Cameron has paved the way for a retreat on his key demand to curb EU migrant benefits, admitting that there are ‘different ways’ to get his welfare reforms.
In his most important speech on Europe for months, the Prime Minister also sent a strong signal that the UK’s “national security” and global influence was enhanced by staying in the European Union.
Mr Cameron’s words came as he finally published a letter to Brussels spelling out his main proposals to change the way the EU works ahead of a British referendum on our membership.
But on the key issue of cutting the ‘pull factor’ of immigration, he made clear he was ready to negotiate on his main demand to curb in-work benefits for EU migrants.
The Tory general election manifesto stated explicitly that “We will insist that EU migrants who want to claim tax credits and child benefit must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years”.
Today, as leading European politicians warned that it would be ‘illegal’ to impose a four-year ban, Mr Cameron conceded that he may have to be flexible.
“I understand how difficult some of these welfare issues are for other Member States. And I am open to different ways of dealing with this issue,” he said in his speech at Chatham House in central London.
He added: “But we do need to secure arrangements that deliver on the objective set out in the Conservative Party manifesto to control migration from the European Union.”
Mr Cameron further suggested wriggle room in his plans, by stating “the precise form all these changes will take will be a matter for the renegotiation”.
And in his letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk, Mr Cameron said that ‘precise means’ of implementing his plans were “a matter for negotiation, not least as there may, in each case be different ways of achieving the same result”.
Some EU states believe that a legal case can more easily be made for a six-month rather than a four-year ban on migrant benefits.
Others suggest that Mr Cameron can only get his four-year ban by imposing it on British nationals too, insisting that all new claimants will have had to work for four years before qualifying for tax credits.
As he came under fire from Tory Eurosceptics, Europe Minister David Lidington confirmed the new approach in the House of Commons, making clear it was the end not the means that mattered most to the UK on migrant benefits.
"Others in the EU have concerns about this. And that’s why we say to them if that is what you think, put forward alternative proposal that deliver the same result.
“It is the outcome of the measures - controlled, fair, properly managed migration - that is the end that we seek.”
Downing Street sources suggested after the speech that while the PM's preference was for a four-year ban, he was open to alternative ways of achieving his aims.
Critics claimed today that Mr Cameron was overstating the number of migrants who are attracted to the UK by its welfare system.
The Prime Minister stressed that it was ‘Mission Possible’ that he could get the changes he wants to convince the British public to vote to stay in the EU in a referendum before the end of 2017.
In one of his most pro-EU speeches of his career, he repeatedly said that Britain’s future was linked not just to its economic security but also “national security”.
He made clear that allies such as President Barack Obama had warned that the UK would be more secure inside the European Union bloc.
“Our membership of the EU does matter for our national security and for the security of our allies, which is one reason why our friends in the world strongly urge us to remain in the EU,” he said.
“It is not just a question of strength in numbers, important though that is. The EU, like NATO and our membership of the UN Security Council, is a tool that a British Prime Minister uses to get things done in the world, and protect our country.”
Citing joint action on Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear programme, Mr Cameron added: “If the British Prime Minister was no longer present at European Summits, we would lose that voice and therefore permanently change our ability to get things done in the world.”
He also pointed to the UK border post being sited in Calais – in “France, another EU member” - as another example of how cooperation helped Britain’s security.
In his letter, the PM promised to put his "heart and soul" into getting a deal that would allow the UK to stay in the EU.
The Prime Minister's letter set out four areas of renegotiation: an explicit opt-out for the UK from 'ever closer union', better EU competitiveness, migration curbs and protection for non-euro nations.
He revealed he wanted to 'look at' a German-style constitutional court that would put British justice before EU justice systems and called for specific targets to cut EU business red tape.
Mr Cameron swiftly came under fire from UKIP leader Nigel Farage for ‘eulogising’ about the EU and for having ‘conflated’ benefits with the bigger issue of freedom of movement between Britain and the continent.
Farage said: "What is clear from this speech is that there is no substantial renegotiation. He deliberately conflated benefits with freedom of movement. This is not about benefits.
"He spent 44 minutes and 30 seconds eulogising about the European Union. He then put this little warning in that if he doesn't get what he wants we could leave."
European Parliament president Martin Schulz said after the speech: "I have strong doubts about the legality of the four year ban on access to welfare benefits for EU citizens but wait to see what specific ideas the British government will come up with in the end in this particular area."
A spokesman for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was also lukewarm about the chances of reforming EU migrants' in-work benefits.
Such ideas were "highly problematic as they touch upon the fundamental freedoms of our internal market", the spokesman said. "Direct discrimination between EU citizens clearly falls into this last category."
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron seized on the pro-EU tone of Mr Cameron's speech and his willingness to negotiate.
“He has recognised that EU membership is critical to the UK's security as well as prosperity. In places I thought Ken Clarke had become Prime Minister," he said.
Dominic Cummings, Campaign Director of Vote Leave, said: "The public wants the end of the supremacy of EU law, to take back control of our democracy, and to spend the money wasted in Brussels on our priorities like the NHS and science.
"Cameron’s renegotiation isn’t even asking for this - he is only promising to change what the EU has already agreed to give him. People won’t trust his spin. The safest choice is to Vote Leave."