UK push for curbs on migrant benefits gets mixed EU reception

UK push for curbs on migrant benefits gets mixed EU reception
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks at the Conservative Party's annual Spring Forum, in central London March 16, 2013.

BRUSSELS - British Prime Minister David Cameron's push to limit the free movement of people within the European Union won some support among wealthy western governments on Thursday but east European nations accused him of pre-election populism.

Cameron unveiled plans last week to limit the access of EU migrants to welfare in Britain and said he wanted eventually to restrict people from poorer states from moving to richer ones, stirring a row with the European Commission.

In the wake of Europe's financial crisis, Britain and states including Germany and the Netherlands have expressed concerns over people from poorer countries migrating west to take advantage of social security systems or commit welfare fraud.

Governments in the poorer, newer member states from the east see such concerns as an attack on one of the key achievements of European integration - the right of citizens to move and work freely across the 500-million-people bloc.

Before talks on the issue among EU home affairs ministers in Brussels, Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May said the EU should consider limiting free movement to protect national economic interests.

"For example, shouldn't national governments be able to put a cap on numbers if they believe there are issues around economic migration?" she told reporters.

The European Commission - the EU executive - has criticised Cameron's proposals, saying European rules on free movement of people are non-negotiable and Britain has to accept them if it wants to remain in the EU's single market.

Last week, in response to a request by Britain, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, the Commission offered help in resolving some of their concerns by clarifying rules on who is eligible to receive welfare benefits.

It said it can help local authorities fight welfare abuse through marriages of convenience and spend EU aid funds to fight poverty. But Britain and its allies said on Thursday the Commission's plans were not enough.

"There is a certain lack of legal clarity," said one diplomat about the proposals, saying more details were needed on issues such as how and when governments could turn back citizens of other countries suspected of welfare abuse, for example.

"It is not clear enough what conditions have to be met for member states to impose such an entry ban," the diplomat said.

Sweden's migration minister Tobias Billstrom said migration in Europe was beneficial to its economy but protection against welfare fraud was needed.

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