LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office on Sunday played down reports that he was prepared to drop one of his key demands for reforming Britain’s relationship with the European Union after other countries made it clear they would not accept it.
Several British newspapers reported Cameron would signal at a meeting of EU leaders this week he is willing to compromise on his plan to make EU migrant workers wait four years before they are allowed to claim some state benefits.
“This is simply not true,” a spokeswoman said. She did, however, point out to a speech by the British leader last month in which he said he was open to different ways of dealing with the issue but they must deliver on the objective of controlling EU migration.
A climb down would boost the chances of Britain being able to reach a deal with other EU leaders but would likely lead to a row within Cameron’s Conservative Party, who made the benefits pledge a manifesto commitment ahead of May’s national election.
Earlier this month European Council President Donald Tusk, who is running the renegotiation with Britain, said Cameron’s pledge to cut immigration was the main stumbling block to reaching a deal.
Officials and diplomats see the proposals discriminating between EU citizens on national grounds, which they say jars with basic EU treaty law.
Immigration is a top issue of voter concern in Britain, and a ComRes poll for the Independent on Sunday newspaper found three quarters of Britons back the plan to make migrant workers wait four years before claiming state benefits. However, only 31 percent believed Cameron would be able to achieve this.
Britain’s relationship with the EU has long divided Cameron’s Conservatives, contributing to the downfall of two of his predecessors.
Eurosceptic Conservative lawmaker Owen Paterson, a former government minister who backs Britain leaving the 28-nation bloc, said Cameron’s demands were not enough as coming to Britain to find jobs was generally a bigger draw for migrants than the welfare system.
“We were promised a major renegotiation, a total change with the relationship with our European neighbours,” he told Sky News. “These are really trivial demands ... we have got to manage our own immigration policy and at the moment we can’t.”
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Clelia Oziel