David Cameron has received a boost to his EU renegotiation plans after Angela Merkel left the door open to revising the Lisbon treaty to accommodate British demands.
On the final stage of the prime minister’s two-day tour of four European capitals, the German chancellor adopted an emollient tone as she expressed the hope that a deal could be agreed with Britain.
“Wherever there is a desire, there is also a way, and this should be our guiding principle here,” Merkel said after talks at the German chancellery in Berlin.
Cameron travelled to Berlin after one of his central demands – banning EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits for four years – was given a frosty reception in Warsaw by his Polish counterpart, Ewa Kopacz. The Polish prime minister, who faces a tough general election in the autumn and is unlikely to cave in to Britain, accused Cameron of tabling discriminatory proposals targeted at Poles.
Cameron is understood to have tried to reassure Kopacz that his plans would not discriminate against Polish citizens because they would apply to all EU migrants. But the penalising of EU citizens enjoying the freedom to work in the UK is one of the most controversial and also most substantive items on the prime minister’s shopping list.
British officials working on Cameron’s renegotiation plan accept that his plans to restrict access to in-work benefits for EU migrants is emerging as one of the most difficult items. Government lawyers have advised No 10 that the changes would have to be underpinned in the Lisbon treaty to ensure that the UK could not be taken to the European court of justice for breaching the EU’s rules on the free movement of people.
It is understood that British officials will argue that it is difficult to accuse the UK of discriminating against EU citizens by denying them the same access to tax credits as British citizens, because of differences between welfare systems across the EU. Other EU states have contributory welfare systems which means that UK citizens working in some EU countries are denied access to some benefits.