The UK foreign secretary has poured cold water on an attempt by nearly 100 Tory MPs to force the government to change the law and give Parliament the authority to veto new EU legislation.
The 95 Conservative backbenchers have signed a letter calling for the change to give Britain greater control over human rights law, immigration and business regulation.
But William Hague told Sky News on Sunday that the proposal was unworkable and would lead to the disintegration of the bloc.
“If national parliaments all around the EU were regularly and unilaterally able to choose which bits of EU law they would apply and which bits they wouldn’t, the European single market wouldn’t work and even a Swiss-style free trade arrangement with the EU wouldn’t work,” Mr Hague said.
Europe is moving to the top of the political agenda ahead of elections to the European Parliament in May where the anti-Brussels Ukip party is expected to perform strongly.
The letter, written by backbencher Bernard Jenkin, marks an end to the informal truce between the Tory leadership and rightwing eurosceptic backbenchers, which has held since David Cameron promised an EU referendum.
The UK prime minister has promised to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with Brussels, ahead of a vote in 2017 that will give people a vote on whether the country should leave the EU.
Mr Cameron, along with the Labour and Lib Dem leaders, will campaign for Britain to remain in the EU but many Tory MPs would prefer the UK to leave and believe Mr Cameron will struggle to achieve a meaningful renegotiation.
Mr Hague said that he had discussed with his European counterparts the need to give more power to national parliaments.
“We’re arguing for . . . greater parliamentary scrutiny and power over EU decisions,” he said. “We have to be realistic about these things but we are working for more national accountability.”
The Sunday Times reported that Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, wanted EU migrants to be banned from claiming welfare payments for up to two years after they arrive in Britain.
That would go further than a recently announced three-month limit, prompted by political concerns about Romanians and Bulgarians gaining free access to the UK labour market from the start of this month.
But it does not go as far as Ukip’s proposal that new EU arrivals should have to wait five years before being eligible for benefits.
However, one government official has said there are no current plans to extend the three-month limit.
That policy was drawn up after extensive consultation with lawyers to avoid legal action.
Last week Labour politician Chuka Umunna criticised the rights of EU workers to travel to other member states to seek a job. He said there was “too much” low-skill immigration and said access should be limited to people with firm job offers.
Mr Umunna’s comments were disowned by the Labour leadership but highlighted the anti-EU rhetoric bidding war ahead of May’s European elections.
Mr Duncan Smith would need concerted support from across the EU if he does press ahead with his idea of rewriting existing rules on access to benefits. He is understood to have found sympathy for his proposal in other member states, including Finland, Germany and Italy.
The Sunday Times also said he wanted to make welfare savings by limiting child benefit to the first two children in a family and by reducing housing benefit for under-25s.
Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem deputy prime minister, said he would examine the proposals but said: “I’m not in favour . . . of a Chinese-style family policy; to say it’s OK to have 2 children, not to have 3 children.”
Amid the increasingly noisy debate over the EU, Mr Clegg – leader of the most pro-European of the three main parties – said Britain should not “cower behind the cliffs of Dover” but be “open” to the rest of the world.
Meanwhile Martin Schulz, president of the European parliament, was quoted in the Observer newspaper saying there was no chance of reopening the EU rules on free movement. “Free movement of people has been one of the great successes the EU has. It’s a fundamental principle and it’s not up for negotiation any more than renegotiating the principle of the free movement of goods, services or capital.”
George Osborne, the chancellor, will argue in a speech this week that while Britain should remain in the EU it has several allies supporting its attempts to reform the bloc from inside.
Responding to Mr Duncan Smith’s comments on stopping EU migrants claiming benefits for two years, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Rachel Reeves, said: “The government have been playing catch-up after Labour proposed measures to ensure people are coming to UK to contribute, not just to claim benefits.
“We’ve said that the EU framework needs reform, including to look again at social security and Labour market rules, but that means serious proposals and effective influence in Europe, not empty bluster.”
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