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5th Mar 2024

MEPs threaten to unpick UK welfare deal

  • Pittella (l): "Imagine two young people - Europeans, same job, same work - there is a danger one would have less rights" (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The leader of the socialist bloc in the European Parliament has threatened to undo the EU deal on British welfare curbs, amid broader debate on if the pact will stick.

The Italian MEP, Gianni Pittella, who speaks for the second biggest group in the EU assembly, said on Wednesday (24 February) that the welfare provisions amount to “discrimination”.

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  • Harms: "I will never agree that eastern European workers are seen as second-class citizens" (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

"Imagine two young people - Europeans, same job, same work - there is a danger one would have fewer rights than the other … We don't want to see any distinction between rights in the European Union,” he said in a plenary debate in Brussels.

He noted that the welfare part of the British deal will have to be translated into new legal proposals by the European Commission and that MEPs will have the right to table amendments.

"The European Commission will need to put provisions through parliament. At that point we will be able to examine and debate them,” he said.

Rebecca Harms, a leading German MEP in the Green group, also said: "I will never agree that eastern European workers are seen as second-class citizens."

The deal, agreed by EU leaders at last week’s summit, would let the UK put a seven-year stop to in-work benefits for people from other EU countries.

It also allows Britain to pay child benefit to EU migrant workers whose children don’t live in the UK on the basis of living costs in their native country.

Other provisions include extra say on eurozone decisions and UK exclusion from an EU treaty pledge of “ever closer union.”

Broader debate

Pittella’s warning comes amid debate on whether the whole UK deal could be overturned by the EU court in Luxembourg after the UK referendum in June.

The debate flared up when Britain’s justice secretary Michael Gove, who wants the UK to leave the EU, told the BBC that the deal isn’t legally binding until it is enshrined in a new EU treaty.

British PM David Cameron and two British law lords said the summit deal is binding.

The EU Council chief, Donald Tusk, told MEPs on Wednesday that Cameron is right.

He described the leaders’ accord as “legally binding and irreversible” and said it “cannot be annulled by the European Court of Justice.”

But a British parliament legal advisor, Arnold Ridout, the same day said it contains “legal uncertainties.”

A former British solicitor general, Edward Garnier, also said the EU court could overturn it, but would never do so for political reasons. “He [Gove] is right, but not entirely,” Garnier said.

’Cockfight’

MEPs from the leading centre-right, centre-left, and liberal groups in the EU assembly all want the UK to stay in the EU.

Rounding on a eurosceptic British MEP Nigel Farage in Wednesday’s debate, liberal leader and former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt said: “He [Farage] is looking forward to a time when Britain leaves the United Kingdom. Guess who else wants that? [Russian leader] Vladimir Putin. They want to split and fragment the European Union.”

But MEPs criticised the UK for distracting EU leaders from grave issues such as the refugee crisis and economic problems.

Manfred Weber, the German leader of the centre-right EPP group, said “it was hard to see how welfare benefits or the City of London could be considered priorities."

The socialists’ Pittella said: “We cannot accept being taken hostage by the internal balance within the British Tory party … when Europe is in the worst crisis of its history.”

Verhofstadt said: “It is now about the personal ambitions of two men. A glorified cockfight. With Boris Johnson [the eurosceptic London mayor] challenging David Cameron.”

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