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Germany says ready to find EU benefits deal with Britain

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany is ready to help Britain win reforms on welfare benefits paid to migrants from other European Union countries and would itself like to see these rules tightened, Labour Minister Andrea Nahles said in a newspaper interview on Wednesday.

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Prime Minister David Cameron wants to reform Britain’s relationship with the EU ahead of an ‘in-out’ referendum he has promised to hold by the end of 2017. Welfare benefits for EU migrants to Britain are the thorniest issue in the negotiations.

“We want Britain to remain in the EU. That is our joint conviction,” Nahles told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) daily in a joint interview with French Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri.

“We are ready to find solutions to the Britons’ questions that address the issue of social benefits for foreign EU citizens,” Nahles said.

The newspaper said Germany and France saw the renegotiation of Britain’s EU ties as an opportunity to bundle concessions to London with their own wishes to reform welfare payments linked to the free movement of people within the 28-nation EU.

Nahles wants to protect German local authorities from having to pay out unlimited amounts to EU migrants without means, the FAZ added.

“From our point of view too, there are holes in the rules when it comes to avoiding false incentives. We can see that in Germany too,” she said.

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The readiness of Germany and France, the EU’s leading powers, to show flexibility on the welfare issue is good news for Cameron, who wants to clinch a deal at an EU summit next month that he can then sell to British voters.

However, Nahles’ offer of support addresses the softer part of Cameron’s demands - cracking down on welfare abuse by those without jobs or other means - rather than Cameron’s push to discriminate against foreign workers.

Rich EU states support Cameron’s call to fight such ‘abuse’ of their welfare systems and Germany has led the charge by fighting - and winning - several cases in Europe’s Court of Justice to deny benefits to foreigners.

But Cameron wants a special dispensation to be able to discriminate between two identical workers on the grounds that one is, for example, Polish and the other British - and he is not supported on that position by other member states.

“One thing is clear: the principles of free movement of workers and non-discrimination are non-negotiable for either of us,” Nahles said.

Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Gareth Jones