EU eastern states to have joint response on Britain - Hungary

By Marc Jones

By Marc Jones

LONDON (Reuters) - Countries on the European Union's eastern flank will meet next week and try to provide a joint response on Feb. 15 to proposals to keep Britain in the EU bloc, Hungary's Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on Thursday.

In an interview with Reuters he also said that if Britain was allowed to apply restrictions on benefits to EU nationals, it would raise "serious questions" about other large EU members replicating the move.

Szijjarto said it was overwhelmingly in the EU's interest to keep Britain in the 28-member bloc, but that cutting benefits of those that had moved to live there was a highly sensitive issue.

"I have hosted the Polish foreign minister yesterday, UK Prime Minister Cameron visits Poland tomorrow, the Polish prime minister visits Budapest on Monday and then on Feb. 15 we will have a Visegrad summit," he said.

"We will make an attempt to put together a joint Visegrad position."

The Visegrad group comprises Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, the biggest supplier of migrant labour to Britain.

The minister said there were a number issues to respond to, including on ensuring national powers were not diluted and making sure regulations did not only benefit countries that use the euro. Of the group, only Slovakia uses the euro.

But it was the issue of potential benefit restrictions that is like to dominate. One of the key proposals of a draft put forward by the EU's Donald Tusk is suspend some payments to migrants from the rest of the bloc for four years.

"We respect the right of any country to cut the possibility to abuse its social system. But a regulation which is discriminatory is not acceptable for us," he said of Hungary's view, ahead of a speech at the London School of Economics.

"So the main issue on Monday (in the meeting between the Hungarian and Polish prime ministers) will be whether it is possible to execute temporary limitation of access to state benefits in a way which does not end up as discrimination."

Szijjarto also said that a collapse of the passport-free Schengen travel zone arrangement would be highly problematic for the region and that it was in everyone's interest to keep it "alive".

(Reporting by Marc Jones; Editing by Alison Williams)