WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland could be open to compromise over British demands to limit the rights of European Union migrants if London helps it bolster the NATO presence in central Europe, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told Reuters.
With hundreds of thousands of Poles living in Britain, Warsaw is one of the EU’s staunchest critics of Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to cut benefits for migrants as part of his planned overhaul of Britain’s EU membership terms.
Cameron has set a deadline of the end of 2017 for an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, but recently gave his strongest suggestion yet that he hopes to hold it in 2016.
Cameron left Warsaw empty-handed last month after a visit to discuss his push, with Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydlo saying further talks were needed.
Szydlo’s new conservative government, however, is keen to score a diplomatic victory at a summit of the NATO military alliance due to be held in Warsaw in July.
Waszczykowski said the issues were being discussed in tandem.
Asked whether Britain could offer Poland something to soften its opposition to Cameron’s proposal, Waszczykowski said: “Of course. Britain could offer something to Poland in terms of international security.
“We still consider ourselves a second-class NATO member-state, because in central Europe ... there aren’t, aside from a token presence, any significant allied forces or defense installations, which gives the Russians an excuse to play this region,” he said.
In 2014, Poland’s then foreign minister said he wanted the alliance to station two NATO heavy brigades - typically between 3,000 and 5,000 troops - on Polish soil in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, where Moscow denies it is actively assisting pro-Russian rebels.
The alliance is reluctant to permanently station troops in central Europe, with some states wary of violating a 1997 NATO-Russia agreement on the size of forces the alliance can have in former Warsaw Pact countries, of which Poland is one.
Moscow would almost certainly regard the establishment of a standing NATO presence on its borders as a hostile act.
Some western European allies have also been skeptical about basing large numbers of troops and equipment in Poland at a time when defense budgets are tight and question the military logic of tying down large numbers of troops in one place.
“Britain could support our expectations related to an allied military presence on Polish territory,” Waszczykowski said.
Waszczykowski said Poland wanted to offset the impact of any benefit cuts for its citizens living in Britain by planning to offer a monthly cash payment to families with children, in the hope Polish workers will stay in Poland instead of emigrating.
He said Warsaw opposed any cuts in benefits in Britain that singled out potential recipients based on their origin.
“We’re aware that the British welfare system is very elaborate and that it may not be able to bear it. We are therefore addressing this by increasing our benefits, and we also want to raise salaries in Poland,” he said.
EU heads of state are due to discuss British proposals at a summit in February.
NATO defense ministers are scheduled to meet next month in preparation for the NATO summit.
“It would be very difficult for us to accept any discrimination,” Waszczykowski said, referring to the migrant talks with London. “Unless Britain helped us really effectively with regard to the Polish defense ambitions at the summit in Warsaw.”
After Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, NATO suspended practical cooperation with Moscow. But after Russia’s involvement in Syria, some alliance members, notably Germany, have called for talks with Moscow to be reopened to avoid incidents like the downing of a Russian jet by NATO-member Turkey.
Poland, which has been a staunch critic of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, is ready to accept this, Waszczykowski said, but only if NATO members agree to bolster the alliance’s eastern flank first.
Additional reporting by Pawel Sobczak; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Andrew Bolton and Janet Lawrence