UK push for curbs on migrant benefits gets mixed EU reception

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.

"POPULISM"

EU governments are likely to discuss welfare abuse and any limits on free movement in the coming months before any decisions are made or EU laws changed.

In Britain, Cameron's Conservatives are likely to push for change, facing a risk of having their vote split at European elections next year and at a national election in 2015 by the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Cameron, under pressure from his own party to get tough on the issue, will have to get other EU governments on board and could face a legal challenge from the European Commission.

East European EU members have accused him of pre-election populism.

"Britain's domestic politics is being conducted at the expense of European values and this is very sad," one Polish diplomat said on the sidelines of Thursday's discussions.

During Thursday's discussions, the Commission's justice chief, Viviane Reding, told EU governments that preventing welfare abuse by migrants was their responsibility and it was fully envisaged within current rules.

"Our EU rules are good and they are here to stay. Member States need to apply them to tackle abuse," she told reporters.

One way for governments to address fraud, however, was to limit benefits that may be too "generous", she said.

In separate discussions, EU governments were due to consider Commission proposals to address mass migration into Europe from Africa and the Middle East, in the wake of hundreds of people drowning off the shores of Italy in recent months.

On Wednesday, the Commission proposed changes to EU asylum rules to allow people to seek protection before actually reaching European soil, potentially making it easier for them to seek asylum. It also called on EU governments to give more support to the bloc's Fronted border agency.

Italy, which bears the brunt of illegal immigration from North Africa, welcomed the discussions as a sign the EU was taking seriously the need to help Rome tackle the issue.

Amnesty International said EU governments, due to talk about the issue again at a summit later in December, were shying away from taking responsibility for asylum seekers.