LONDON – Britain is flexible on a key demand that is holding up attempts to secure reforms of the European Union ahead of an in-or-out referendum on its membership, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Tuesday.
Hammond told The Guardian newspaper that London is willing to consider alternatives to its demands for a four-year ban on top-up benefits for low-paid EU migrants working in Britain, a bid to discourage them from coming.
“There is no magic about four years,” he said. “It is just a figure that we calculated would provide a sufficient deterrent.
“If someone was to say it has to be less than four years, they would have to show there is a compensating mechanism that would mean it would have the same effect on migration,” he added.
Prime Minister David Cameron hopes to strike a deal on renegotiating Britain’s ties with Brussels at an EU summit next month, before campaigning to stay in the union.
An in-or-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the bloc will be held by the end of 2017, with commentators believing it could come this year if a deal is reached next month.
Critics say the benefit ban is discriminatory and threatens freedom of movement in the EU.
Hammond has completed visits to all 27 other EU capitals as part of the renegotiation push.
“Some are sympathetic and some are not,” he said.
Many doubt that Britain will be able to force the treaty changes that may be required to satisfy its demands.
However, Hammond said there could be a legally-binding agreement to incorporate the changes next time the treaties are opened.
If a deal is struck next month, the referendum could take place as early as June, but Hammond indicated it may not come before September this year at the earliest.
If a deal between London and Brussels had to be delayed until March, it would be “very tight” to hold a referendum before July and August.
Regional and local elections are due in May and Cameron wants a referendum campaign lasting at least three months.