David Cameron must be granted a Danish-style opt out from free movement rules in order to get his ban on migrant benefits, Boris Johnson says, ahead of a summit this week which will determine Britain’s future in the European Union.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, the London Mayor said an exemption from EU rules that allows Denmark to ban non-residents from buying homes could be emulated by the UK to impose waiting times on benefits.
The compromise plan – which could see welfare restrictions apply to returning British expatriates as well as EU migrants – is being examined by Brussels diplomats as a potential way of saving Mr Cameron’s flagship EU reform, it is understood.
Downing Street said the idea had not been “formally tabled”, but admitted it could be raised during Thursday’s decisive European Council summit in Brussels.
It is understood that Mats Persson, Mr Cameron’s Europe adviser in Downing Street, has also raised the Danish property rule when attempting to persuade the Czech government to accept Britain’s plans.
French President Francois Hollande is understood to bea major opponent of Mr Cameron’s reforms – and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reluctant to intervene.
It came after a weekend of chaos in which Government sources first apparently briefed that the Prime Minister was ready to ditch his demand for a four-year benefits ban for migrants – which he set out last month in a letter to Donald Tusk, the European Council president – in the face of overwhelming opposition.
However on Sunday, after the claims were published in a number of Sunday newspapers, the position had changed again, with Downing Street insisting it was “simply not true” to say Mr Cameron had dropped the four year benefits ban demand.
A spokesman said: “He is open to different ways of dealing with this issue – but they must deliver on the objective set out in the Conservative manifesto on controlling migration from the EU.”
Tory Eurosceptics seized on the disorder, saying the apparent climbdown was a “trigger point” that would lead to more MPs and peers backing the ‘Out’ campaign.
Jean-Claude Juncker’s most senior aides fear that the prospects of Brexit have increased significantly due to the impasse over benefits, several EU sources have told this newspaper, and are openly talking about how the EU would function without Britain, and what trade arrangements might continue.
One said: “Given some of the potential difficulties people are starting to take the possibility of Brexit more seriously.”
“There is now a worry that some of the arguments are too inflexible around the four years issue and it could derail the reform agenda. It is not the same as contingency planning – but they are asking questions.”
Mr Cameron had wanted to change the EU treaties to allow in-work benefits to be stripped from non-British nationals, but his plans have been met with unanimous opposition by countries which argue it violates fundamental European principles of non-discrimination.
But a fall-back position would be to insist on a period of residency before claiming benefits – and opinion is split in Brussels as to whether this would be struck down in the courts as discrimination.
In his Telegraph article, Mr Johnson pointed out that Denmark has enshrined in its terms of EU membership the right to insist on five years’ residency in the country before buying a property, in order to prevent locals’ homes being snapped up by Germany holiday makers.
It is a specific exemption from free movement of capital, one of the fundamental pillars of the EU.
Mr Johnson said: “The PM’s suggestion was modest, and sensible. It has been recklessly disregarded. This country could have a viable and exciting future outside the present EU arrangements.
“If we are going to stay, we need reform; and if the Danes can have their special circumstances recognised, so can Britain.”
Stephen Booth, the director of the Open Europe think tank, said the Danish option could work.
“An eligibility test for benefits based on residency could be more acceptable to other EU governments since, while it would temporarily deny access to new arrivals, it would not directly discriminate between UK and EU nationals,” he said. “The question would be how many British people might be affected, a devil which would need to be addressed in the detail of the plan.”
A Downing Street source said the Danish model was “not something that has been put to us formally or informally”, although it may emerge as an option in the talks at a later date.
The source said: “Lots of people are trying to come up with the solution and at the moment nobody has put an alternative solution to us.
“We are not formally tabling any ideas other than what we put in the Tusk letter.”
Mr Cameron has been allocated a session over dinner and several hours of Thursday evening to convince EU leaders of his reforms.
EU officials hope to get agreement on the broad outlines of a deal, allowing diplomats to wrangle over the legal details ahead of a final deal in February. A referendum is penciled in for June, it is understood.
The European Commission is also examining an ’emergency brake’, allowing emergency measures to halt a ‘surge’ in EU migrants which would be easy for Mr Cameron to sell to voters.
However, other diplomats ridiculed this idea, saying it would be “unusable” as the European Commission would have the final say on whether it could be applied.
An EU plan to double the waiting period for migrants’ access to unemployment benefits from three months to six is also being delayed until next year, a move that will allow Mr Cameron to deploy it in his campaign. It was due to be unveiled last week.
Steve Baker MP, the founder of Conservatives for Britain, called on rank-and-file Tories to respond to Mr Cameron’s woes in Brussels by lobbying their MP to back Brexit over Christmas.
“I would certainly urge Conservative party members to impress their views upon their MPs,” he said.
“With so many colleagues having made Eurosceptic noises at their selection meetings their members will now expect them to reject a deal which is going to be a fundamentally same basis as we had before.”
Some 20 Tory MPs have joined his campaign in the past six weeks, he said, as it became clear that other EU leaders would not allow significant change in the UK’s relationship with Brussels, taking the total to 130.
David Campbell Bannerman MEP, co-chairman of the campaign, predicted a raft of new backers in Westminster. “The lack of any meaningful deal will bring down the fence so many are sitting on,” he said.
Peter Lilley, a Cabinet minister in John Major’s last Conservative Government, said he will vote for Britain to leave the EU, unless the Prime Minister comes back with “some increase in powers to govern ourselves”.
Mr Lilley, who was a noted Eurosceptic in the 1990s, said the key issue for him was “to see democratic powers to be returned to this country from the European institutions”.
Mr Lilley said while he accepted that some common laws are required to run a common trading bloc area, Britain has conceded a lot more powers.
He added: “We’d like to get some of that back and to start the process of getting those powers back. If we don’t and we can’t then we’ll be very much on a slippery slope to creating a single state.”
Former environment secretary Owen Paterson, likened the Prime Minister to a man “in a little dinghy” being towed along by the EU.
“We were promised a major renegotiation, a total change with the relationship with our European neighbours.
“What actually is happening, he is like someone in a little dinghy, bumping along, being towed along by the enormous great Channel ferry.
“They are heading towards creating a new entity to make the Eurozone work – a much more integrated political entity, almost like a new country.
“We can never go there – we will never be in the Euro, we will never be in Schengen – and he is bumping around the back, towed along in the dinghy and this is all froth and bubble.”
Pro-EU campaigners were dismayed that it looked like Mr Cameron might not get his benefits reform.
One said Mr Cameron had scored an own “goal”, adding: “If you oversell it you leave people disappointed.”