LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said on Sunday it planned to use a visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week to try to persuade Berlin to support measures to discourage people from moving within the European Union to tap welfare benefits.
If re-elected next year, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to try to reform the EU before giving Britons an in/out membership referendum by the end of 2017 amid widespread public skepticism about the bloc.
Trailing in the polls, Cameron has said he wants to eventually restrict migrants from poorer EU states relocating to richer ones like Britain to take advantage of its comparatively more generous welfare system, a practice British politicians have dubbed “welfare shopping”.
Cameron has suggested possibly capping the annual number of EU migrants allowed to enter Britain each year or withholding full freedom of movement rights until a new EU member state achieves a certain gross domestic product per head.
Such ideas are part of his overall plan to shake up the bloc, full details of which he has yet to disclose.
On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the government hoped to use Merkel’s visit on Thursday to discuss enacting such reforms to the EU.
“I‘m sure these subjects will come up. Germany also has strict benefit rules. Germany doesn’t want its benefit system to be abused. I think again with Germany we have a lot of common ground on that,” Hague told BBC TV.
“Germany of course is our most important partner on seeking reform in the European Union because it’s Germany that has such a strong position in the euro zone.”
Cameron is under pressure from the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) ahead of European elections in May and a national election in 2015, and from eurosceptics in his party who want him to take a tough line on clawing back powers from the bloc.
Hague said he understood that Merkel was a profound believer in the EU and in strengthening it, but that she was also a strong believer in Britain remaining within the EU and understood Cameron’s ideas for reforming the bloc to make it more accountable and competitive.
On a recent visit to London, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was not against discussing changes to EU treaties, but warned Britain against trying to backtrack on European integration.
Britain’s drive to build support for sweeping reforms have so far garnered limited public support from other member states and plenty of warnings about the difficulty of reopening the EU’s treaties to make them happen.
But Hague reiterated that any renegotiation would not happen until after 2015 - if and when Cameron’s Conservatives win a national election - and cited support for reform from the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany itself.
“Don’t underestimate the scale of what we are proposing and seeking,” said Hague.
Editing by Mark Heinrich