EU slams David Cameron for ‘over-reaction’ with plan to restrict migrant benefits
DAVID CAMERON has been accused by Brussels of an "unfortunate over-reaction" after he pledged to stop new arrivals from the EU getting out-of-work benefits for three months.
In an outspoken intervention, European employment commissioner Laszlo Andor warned the Prime Minister that Britain risked becoming seen as the "nasty country" of the EU.
He also cautioned Mr Cameron not to interfere with the rules underpinning the European single market, saying it could be the start of a "slippery slope".
His comments came as the British Prime Minister set out plans to adjust welfare rules as he admitted he shared concerns about an influx of new migrants from Romania and Bulgaria when restrictions on their movement within the EU are lifted next year.
He also demanded wider EU reforms for the future, suggesting labour movement from countries joining the EU could be limited until they hit a certain level of GDP per head.
Mr Andor accused Mr Cameron of not presenting the "full truth" about the issue and suggested the reaction in the UK was based on "hysteria".
"This is an unfortunate over-reaction. We have been in dialogue with the British authorities in recent years. We always encouraged a fact-based debate about the current movement of workers and the implications and it seems it is not happening now," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
"The British public has not been given all the truth and the full truth about this subject. So we would need a more accurate presentation of the reality, not under pressure, not under such hysteria which sometimes happens in the UK.
"The unilateral action, unilateral rhetoric, especially if it is happening at this time, is not really helpful because it risks presenting the UK as the kind of nasty country in the European Union.
"We don't want that. We have to look into the situation collectively and if there are real problems react proportionately."
Mr Andor also warned Mr Cameron against any action which could undermine the single market, which Britain strongly supports.
"These rules have been developed together by the member states themselves together including the United Kingdom. This is part of the single market which the UK appreciates so much in the European Union," he said.
"If we start to dismantle some of the rules of the single market which should apply to everyone, of course others may invent other ideas, other proposals, and then we end up on the slippery slope which nobody particularly wants."
Mr Cameron's intervention, in an article for the Financial Times, comes amid calls from dozens of Conservative MPs for the Government to ignore European law and extend controls on Romania and Bulgaria until 2018.
Mr Cameron said Labour's failure to keep tougher limits on countries such as Poland in 2004 was a "monumental mistake", and he "shared concerns" about what would happen after January 1.
"We are changing the rules so that no one can come to this country and expect to get out-of-work benefits immediately; we will not pay them for the first three months," he said.
"If after three months an EU national needs benefits, we will no longer pay these indefinitely. They will only be able to claim for a maximum of six months unless they can prove they have a genuine prospect of employment."
He said the test for migrants who want to claim benefits was being toughened up with a new minimum earnings threshold.
Those found begging or sleeping rough could be deported and barred from re-entry for 12 months unless they can show they have a proper reason to be in the UK, such as a job.
Firms that pay less than the minimum wage will face fines of up to £20,000 in a bid to prevent undercutting of British workers.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the Liberal Democrats were fully signed up to the rule changes.
"These are sensible and reasonable reforms to ensure that the right to work does not automatically mean the right to claim," he said.
However, Mr Cameron made clear that he wanted to go further, and said that the Conservatives would seek a "new settlement" on the free movement of labour if they formed a majority government after the general election in 2015.
"We need to face the fact that free movement has become a trigger for vast population movements caused by huge disparities in income," he said.
"It is time for a new settlement which recognises that free movement is a central principle of the EU, but it cannot be a completely unqualified one.
"So Britain, as part of our plan to reform the EU, will now work with others to return the concept of free movement to a more sensible basis."
For Labour, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the Prime Minister was "playing catch-up" after failing to take action earlier.
"Why has it taken him eight months to copy Labour's proposal to make the Habitual Residence Test stronger and clearer?" she said.
"After Labour proposed this change in March, the Government said it was all fine and nothing needed to change. Yet now, rather than following a coherent plan, they are flailing around.
"No wonder public confidence in the Government's handling of this issue has collapsed."