David Cameron has passionately urged other EU leaders to support his “reasonable” proposals for far-reaching curbs on welfare benefits for migrants.
Britain’s prime minister said lower EU migration would be a priority in future negotiations on the UK’s membership and he said would “rule nothing out” if he did not get the changes he wanted.
Under his plans, migrants will have to wait four years for certain benefits.
Brussels said the ideas were “part of the debate” to be “calmly considered”.
But UKIP leader Nigel Farage said the PM was “behind the curve” on immigration, while Labour said Mr Cameron had “no credibility” on the subject.
In a long-awaited speech in a factory in the West Midlands, Mr Cameron said he was confident he could change the basis of EU migration into the UK and therefore campaign for the UK to stay in the EU in a future referendum planned for 2017.
But he warned that if the UK’s demands fall on “deaf ears” he will “rule nothing out” – the strongest hint to date he could countenance the UK leaving the EU.
The main proposals in the speech – which are dependent on Mr Cameron remaining in power after May’s general election – are:
- Stopping EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits, such as tax credits, and getting access to social housing for four years
- Stopping migrants claiming child benefit for dependents living outside the UK
- Removing migrants from the UK after six months if they have not found work
- Restricting the right of migrants to bring family members into the UK
- Stopping EU jobseekers claiming Universal Credit
- Speeding up deportation of convicted criminals
- Longer re-entry bans for beggars and fraudsters removed from the UK
- Stopping citizens from new EU entrants working in the UK until “their economies have “converged more closely”.
- Extra money for communities with high levels of migrants
Mr Cameron said there was “no doubt” his package of proposals would require changes to the treaties governing the European Union.
He began his speech by saying migration had benefited the UK and that he was proud of the “multi-racial” nature of modern Britain.
But he said immigration levels in recent years, which he said were the largest in peacetime, had put unsustainable pressure on public services and demands for change were “not outlandish or unreasonable”.
“We deserve to be heard and we must be heard,” he said. “Here is an issue which matters to the British people and to our future of the European Union.
“The British people will not understand – frankly I will not understand – if a sensible way through cannot be found, which will help settle this country’s place in the EU once and for all.”
Mr Cameron, who spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker before the speech, said he wanted the package to be adopted across the EU but that if it was not, he would seek a new UK-only arrangement.
BBC political editor Nick Robinson said Mr Cameron’s welfare curbs were “a tougher version of an approach already set out by Labour and the Liberal Democrats” but the proposed four-year limit on benefits would be difficult to negotiate in Brussels.
Ideas of a cap on the numbers coming in had been abandoned, he added, amid the realisation the UK could not get support elsewhere in Europe for it.
At the moment EU citizens are free to come to the UK and compete for jobs without being subject to any immigration controls. Those from outside the EU face much tighter controls if they wish to enter the country.
Outlining proposed restrictions on tax credits and child benefits, Mr Cameron said a migrant in work with two children was getting £700 a month on average in support from the state, twice the amount paid in Germany and three times as much as in France.
“No wonder so many people want to come to Britain,” he said.
Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva, a migration expert at Oxford University, told the BBC there were an estimated 50,000 EU migrants who have been in the UK for fewer than four years claiming tax credits, adding that the changes could have a real impact.
Mr Cameron responded to criticism that the Conservatives’ stated aim in its 2010 manifesto to reduce overall levels of net migration below 100,000 was “in tatters”.
Net migration – the numbers coming to live in Britain minus those leaving – is estimated to have risen by 78,000 to 260,000 in the year to June, 16,000 higher than in 2010.
The PM acknowledged the goal would not met by May, blaming the economic weakness in the eurozone, and said “more time and work” was needed to accomplish it.
Tory MPs reacted positively to the speech but several urged him to go further.
Jacob Rees-Mogg said Mr Cameron’s language indicated “he is willing to campaign to leave (the EU) and I believe that strengthens his negotiating position substantially”.
But Bill Cash, chairman of the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One the proposals did not go far enough, while another Conservative MP, Nigel Mills, said an outright cap on numbers was needed.
The Labour leader said Mr Cameron had “made a promise at the last general election”. “He said ‘no ifs, no buts’ he will get net migration down and it’s gone up.”
Mr Farage said the prime minister should have apologised for missing his immigration target, and said he was “playing catch-up” with UKIP.
He added: “He cannot control immigration from the EU and has revealingly dropped his suggestions of a cap or an emergency brake on numbers coming in.”
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said some of the proposals were “sensible and workable” but said there were “very serious question marks” over others, including deporting jobseekers after six months if they have not found work.
He added: “I doubt that all of the 27 other countries across the European Union are going to sign up to every dot and comma of David Cameron’s blueprint.”
European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: “These are UK ideas and they are part of the debate.
“They will have to be examined without drama and should be discussed calmly and carefully. It is up to national lawmakers to fight against abuses of the system and the EU law allows for this.”