PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka on Friday put forward the first alternative to Britain’s contentious European Union welfare reform plan - saying the idea of an “emergency brake” to cut migration might be acceptable to the Czech Republic.
The British government is seeking a way to curb migration from other EU states as part of reforms aimed at persuading the British public to vote to stay in the 28-country bloc when it holds an in/out referendum, due by the end of 2017.
But its proposal to restrict working migrants’ access to the benefits system for four years has riled some fellow EU members and is proving the most troublesome aspect of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s reform bid.
Sobotka, who has publicly opposed any British plan that would restrict freedom of movement, said on Friday he had discussed a range of alternatives when he met Cameron in Prague.
“In my view, one of the options which could be discussed, according to the Czech Republic, is the option of giving an EU member state government the possibility of an emergency brake in case of enormous pressure on its social welfare system,” he said.
The idea of an emergency brake has previously been mooted by EU officials, but Sobotka was the first to confirm it was being discussed directly with Cameron.
Cameron was visiting Prague on the latest leg of an extensive diplomatic tour aimed at winning support for his wider EU reform package and trying to persuade fellow leaders to strike a deal with him on migration.
Visits to Poland and Hungary have also focussed on the problematic issue of welfare reforms, highlighting the difficulty Cameron faces in trying to broker a deal with 27 other member states.
He must find a solution that is both acceptable to fellow EU members such as the Czech Republic, yet tough enough to convince eurosceptic Britons that it will be effective in reducing immigration - one of voters’ top concerns.
He reiterated that he was hopeful of reaching a deal on the package of reforms by the Feb. 18 to 19 European Council, but acknowledged that renegotiation was proving difficult.
Sobotka voiced overall support for Britain remaining in the EU. “We are ready to do the maximum for Great Britain to remain part of the European Union and we are ready to help the dialogue that is now going on between the European Union and Great Britain,” he said.
Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London; Editing by Richard Balmforth