David Cameron has warned that the European migration crisis could push the UK into leaving the European Union.
The prime minister, who was in Poland for discussions with his counterpart Beata Szydlo, said that Britons’ initial reaction to the current crisis is to the “get me out of here” over the EU.
He expressed concern that - in the short term at least - the influx of people into Europe could harden British opinion against the EU.
In an interview with the Spectator, Cameron said: “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’.”
Cameron’s visit to the eastern European country was party of the latest leg of his diplomatic offensive to win backing for the reform programme he hopes will allow him to recommend the UK remains within the 28-member bloc, the Press Association reported.
A major obstacle is his call for a ban on EU migrants claiming in-work benefits in the UK until they have been in the country for four years, which he hopes will act as a disincentive for citizens of member states seeking to come to Britain.
In an indication that he may consider delaying a referendum until nearer the end of the 2017 deadline he has set, Cameron added: “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 added: “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.”
Cameron has already been forced to concede that there will be no agreement on his reform agenda at this month’s summit of European leaders, with a showdown on his demands now likely in February.
His remarks come as the number of people claiming asylum in the EU this year passed one million according to Eurostat, the EU's statistics agency.
After talks in Bucharest with Romanian president Klaus Iohannis on Tuesday, Cameron stressed the importance of his measures aimed at curbing the number of EU citizens heading to the UK.
He said net migration to the UK was “not sustainable” and said EU members should be allowed to reform benefits rules to reduce incentives.
He acknowledged that “some areas are more difficult than others, particularly the reforms I have proposed on welfare”.
Eastern European countries including Romania and Poland have been major sources of migrant workers coming to the UK, and their politicians are sensitive to any measures which could discriminate against their citizens.
But Cameron insisted: “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.”