David Cameron raised the stakes in his fight to curb immigration by threatening to veto the admission of new members to the European Union unless they accept tough new controls on their citizens moving to the UK.
The British prime minister's dramatic move fuelled tensions with other EU nations at the end of a two-day summit in Brussels yesterday.
Mr Cameron was greeted with silence when he called for the need for stricter transitional controls on the right to work throughout the EU when countries join the 28-nation bloc in future. He went further at a press conference, revealing that he would be prepared to block the entry of new member states unless stricter "freedom of movement" controls were imposed.
He said: "I would make the point that, on new accessions, they are by unanimity, so they don't happen unless everybody agrees. So you have a real opportunity, irrespective of treaty change, to insist on a different approach."
Potential new EU members include Albania, one of the poorest countries in the region, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine. Mr Cameron's threat will enrage their leaders, as these countries started the accession process years ago.
Although Germany, the Netherlands and Austria share Britain's concerns about migration, freedom of movement for all citizens is regarded as a fundamental EU principle.
Diplomats from other countries dismissed as a "non-starter" Mr Cameron's controversial plan to link the right to work in other EU countries to a new member state's GDP, income or wage levels.
On his threat to veto new members, one official said: "It's a sad day when Britain, which was once the champion of enlargement, resorts to this. I cannot imagine the EU agreeing to make people in poor countries stay poorer for longer."
Initially, Mr Cameron will demand tough safeguards on migration in talks over a new treaty to entrench fiscal discipline in the eurozone. If he succeeds, it could be a key selling point in the in/out referendum on Europe he has promised in 2017, when he intends to recommend continued membership.
However, some diplomats did not rule out longer transitional periods before people in new member states win full rights to work in all EU countries. For example, the maximum seven-year wait for Romanians and Bulgarians could be extended to 10 years when other countries join the EU club.
Mr Cameron's tough talk is part of his attempt to reassure the public before Romanians and Bulgarians gain the right to work in the UK on January 1.
He insisted he supported enlargement but said Britain was "not currently supporting" moves to grant Albania "candidate status". He told journalists: "The EU's founding fathers simply did not envisage that the accession of new countries would trigger mass population movements across Europe.
"As we contemplate countries like Serbia or Albania one day joining the EU, we must find a way to slow down access to each other's labour markets until we can be sure that it will not cause vast migrations."
He added: "We must return it to what the EU first envisaged . . . it was meant to be about free movement to go and take up a job that you have already applied for. It was not about free movement for benefit tourism. It was not about free movement for people who don't have the means to support themselves."
He added: "People are welcome to come and work, but not to come and claim . . . I don't think it is right that people can come and work in the UK, with their families back at home but getting UK levels of child benefit."
Mr Cameron said the "lessons of history" showed the previous Labour government was wrong to give unfettered immediate access to the UK labour market to Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states when they joined the EU.
The European Commission said: "There is no evidence that EU nationals go to other EU countries in order to claim benefits or that there is any widespread or systematic abuse by EU nationals of other countries' welfare systems." (© Independent News Service)