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15th Apr 2024

British PM courts eastern EU states on welfare

British prime minister David Cameron met the leaders of four eastern European EU states on Thursday (17 december) to court favour for his plan to curb welfare rights for EU nationals.

The brief “charm offensive,” as one EU diplomat put it, was also like a “blitzkrieg,” because Cameron spent just 15 minutes with the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.

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Cutting in-work benefits for EU citizens, including the tens of thousands of UK workers from the so-called Visegrad or V4 states, has become a political hot potato.

“You can not simply export a British political problem to another country,” one diplomat from the region said.

The British prime minister laid out his plans in what he called a “V5” meeting, and received a unanimous No on his welfare plan.

Sources familiar with the short, non-confrontational discussion say Cameron explored areas for compromise.

Sources said no specifics were discussed. But Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban later said Cameron put forward potential solutions on the most UK-sensitive issues, such as child benefits and marriages of convienience.

The “ideas are a good basis for discussion,” Orban said.

Other sources said the V4 is open to cracking down on welfare cheats and indexing child benefit to real living costs. But they reject a four-year freeze on in-work benefits for EU nationals as “discriminatory.”

Cameron will visit Budapest on 7 January. He is due in Prague before the next EU summit, in February. He went to Warsaw earlier in December.

Treaty change

Orban also said he supports enshrining UK reform demands in an EU treaty change.

The idea was previously unpopular. German chancellor Angela Merkel, on Thursday, also said it’s possible to accomodate Cameron’s treaty request.

But for Orban, Cameron’s reform proposals are not radical enough.

Orban said treaty change is better sooner rather than later. “We should confront the structure - how we run the EU with 28 countries is not appropriate, and was not reformed, and we should discuss it openly,” he said.

Sensitivities

Since joining the EU in 2004, many from the V4 countries have looked for work in the UK, with Poles being the most mobile.

According to official data, 688,000 Poles live in Britain, making them the second-largest overseas-born group after those born in India.

Many of those working in the UK are voters of the new ruling party in Poland, the nationalistic Law and Justice Party, which is expected to protect their welfare interests.

There has also been a surge in the number of Hungarians living and working in the UK since 2010.

The Hungarian-born population rose from 13,000 in 2001 to an estimated estimated 79,000 in 2014, with 22,000 living London.

Orban said, on Friday, that according to estimates, Hungarian citizens working in Britain pay more into the welfare system that they take out.

“We are not a problematic country for the UK. We could come to an agreement easily,” he said.

He also shed light on eastern European sensitivity over being treated as second-class EU citizens.

Orban said Hungary’s problem with Cameron’s proposals is not on substance, but approach. “To consider Hungarians as migrants in Britain is painful to our heart, because we are European citizens,” he said.

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