British prime minister David Cameron won the qualified support of his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, on Thursday for a key part of his EU renegotiation: a proposal to limit migrant workers’ access to welfare benefits.
“Hungarians that work well and contribute to the British economy should not suffer or experience discrimination,” Orbán told reporters alongside Cameron in Budapest. “But we are open to solutions that tackle abuses of the system.”
Cameron’s was the first visit by a Western leader to Hungary in almost a year. Orbán has been criticized for taking a hard line against immigrants from the Balkans and the Middle East, including ordering the construction of a fence on his country’s border with Serbia to keep asylum seekers out.
Other European Union nations have also expressed concern about Orbán’s desire for an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary.
For Cameron, though, Orbán’s support could prove a boon as he seeks to redefine Britain’s relations with the rest of the EU. He has promised to call a referendum on membership by 2017.
If Cameron reaches agreement with other leaders within the next two months, he may be able to hold a referendum as early as June.
Skeptical Central Europeans
The British leader enjoys broad support for most of his proposals, including allowing member states to opt out of “ever-closer” union and giving national parliaments a greater say in making EU law.
But his plan to deny welfare benefits as well as tax credits to workers from other EU nations faces resistance, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.
Orbán’s cautious support could clear the way for the region’s biggest member state, Poland, to accept Cameron’s proposal after all.
Earlier this weekend, the country’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, suggested that the new right-wing government in Warsaw would be more amendable to Cameron’s demands if he helped bolster NATO’s defenses in the East against Russia.
Waszczykowski previously criticized the plan to restrict access to benefits, saying, “If Cameron wants to divide people according to their nationality then that is against the free movement of labor and the treaty.”
The Atlantic Sentinel predicted at the time that the Central Europeans would eventually acquiesce to keep the British in.
“But they were never going to roll over on day one,” we cautioned.
Even if they agree that it may be unfair for one country’s taxpayers to finance the welfare benefits of another’s, they were never going to say so publicly on the day Cameron made his proposal.
Up to the Germans
Germany, the largest and most powerful nation in Europe, has signaled that it is willing to accept most British demands in order to keep the island nation on board.
In November, Chancellor Angela Merkel joined the call for a more flexible EU in which countries can opt out of integration schemes. “The Europe of today is no longer a Europe of one speed,” she admitted.
But her government still has reservations about the plan to restrict access to benefits for up to four years, seeing this as a threat to the free movement of labor in Europe.
Cameron argued in the German tabloid Bild on Wednesday that Britain wants to uphold the principle. “But that should not mean the current freedom to claim all benefits from day one,” he added, “and that’s why I’ve proposed restricting this for the first four years.”