Poland is ready to drop its fierce opposition to David Cameron’s welfare plans if he supports a call to permanently base Nato troops in the country.
In a potentially significant breakthrough for the British government, Witold Waszczykowski, the Polish foreign minister, said he is “of course” willing to consider a bargain over a proposed ban on European migrants claiming in-work benefits.
In exchange, Poland wants Britain to back the permanent basing of Nato troops in the country to deter Russian aggression.
The issue will be discussed at a Nato summit in Warsaw in July. “It would be very difficult for us to accept any discrimination,” Mr Waszczykowski said. “Unless Britain helped us really effectively with regard to the Polish defense ambitions at the summit in Warsaw.”
Asked by Reuters if Mr Cameron could offer something to soften opposition to the welfare plans, he said: “Of course. Britain could offer something to Poland in terms of international security.”
“We still consider ourselves a second-class NATO member-state, because in central Europe there aren’t, aside from a token presence, any significant allied forces or defence installations, which gives the Russians an excuse to play this region.”
Poland was the earliest and loudest critic of Mr Cameron’s plans to deny EU migrants in-work benefits for four years, repeatedly insisting that the plans are discriminatory and illegal under the European treaties. There are some 700,000 Poles in Britain.
The Prime Minister was publicly rebuffed after meeting Beata Szydlo, his Polish counterpart, last month, while Mr Waszczykowski told the Telegraph there could be “no negotiations” over an issue that would “humiliate” his government.
The remarks suggests cracks are starting to appear in the Visegrad bloc, compromising Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. The group last month issued a joint statement rejecting Mr Cameron’s plan.
After last month’s European Council summit in Brussels, France also softened its opposition to welfare reforms, saying that a period of less than four years could be possible.
Mr Cameron is understood to have conceded that direct discrimination, conducted according to nationality, was off the table. It raises the prospect of a system based on a claimant’s recent residency.
At the summit, leaders committed to finding a deal by February, and so it appears the Polish government have switched a policy of outright opposition for one that squeezes concessions from London.
Britain is likely to be sympathetic to Poland’s call for permanent Nato bases, while Germany and France are more reluctant. Russia would regard such a move in a former Warsaw Pact state as highly provocative.
In 2014, Nato responded to the annexation of Crimea by creating a brigade of 5,000 men that can be deployed in eastern Europe within days. Poland wants a larger force to be permanently in the country, and for a 1997 deal with Russia to not to open major Nato bases in eastern Europe to be abandoned.