In a much-anticipated speech setting out plans to bar EU migrants from claiming welfare for the first four years after arriving in the UK and deport those who do not find jobs within six months, Mr Cameron warned that he will “rule nothing out” if other European states turn a deaf ear to British concerns.
The Prime Minister insisted that he still hopes to be able to recommend an In vote in the referendum on EU membership he has promised for 2017, and said he was “confident” of success in the renegotiation of the terms of that membership he plans if Conservatives win next year’s general election.
But he left no doubt that he has not ruled out recommending British exit if other EU nations refuse to compromise on the principle of free movement and accept reforms that he said were “radical” but “reasonable and fair”.
Welfare changes to cut migration from within the EU “significantly” will be an “absolute requirement” in the renegotiation, he said.
Under his plans, EU jobseekers without an offer of employment will not be allowed to claim the new Universal Credit when they arrive in the UK and will be required to leave if they do not find work within six months.
Migrants will be able to claim tax credits and child benefit and to apply for social housing only after four years in the country, and will receive no child benefit or child tax credit for offspring living abroad
“If you elect me as Prime Minister in May, I will negotiate to reform the European Union, and Britain’s relationship with it,” said Mr Cameron. “This issue of free movement will be a key part of that negotiation.
“If I succeed, I will, as I have said, campaign to keep this country in a reformed EU.
“If our concerns fall on deaf ears and we cannot put our relationship with the EU on a better footing, then of course I rule nothing out.
“But I am confident that, with goodwill and understanding, we can and will succeed.”
Speaking in Staffordshire a day after official statistics showed net migration rising to 260,000 over the past year - 16,000 higher than when the coalition Government came to office - Mr Cameron conceded that his policies had “not been enough” to meet the Conservative target of cutting overall numbers to the tens of thousands by 2015.
But he insisted that his reforms had made “a real difference”, cutting numbers of migrants from outside the EU by as much as 50,000. He promised to “go further” if he wins next year’s election, by revoking the licences of colleges whose students overstay visas, extending “deport first, appeal later” rules and requiring landlords to check tenants’ immigration status.
“The ambition remains the right one. But it’s clear: it’s going to take more time, more work and more difficult long-term decisions to get there,” said Mr Cameron.
In a clear swipe at the UK Independence Party, which has built support by highlighting public concerns over immigration, the Prime Minister warned voters to “distrust those who sell the snake oil of simple solutions”.
Denouncing as “appalling” any suggestion of repatriating legal migrants, Mr Cameron said Britain was great “because of immigration, not in spite of it”, and insisted he was proud of the UK’s openness to incomers and its creation of “a successful multi-racial democracy”.
The isolationism of those who want to “pull up the drawbridge” and shut off immigration altogether is “actually deeply unpatriotic”, he said.
“For the sake of British jobs, British livelihoods and British opportunities we must fight this dangerous and misguided view that our nation can withdraw from the world and somehow all will be well,” said Mr Cameron.
But he also warned against the “dangerous” idea that immigration is not a problem and that it is racist to voice anxiety about it.
“We should be clear,” said the Prime Minister. “It is not wrong to express concern about the scale of people coming into the country.
“People have understandably become frustrated. It boils down to one word: control. People want Government to have control over the numbers of people coming here and the circumstances in which they come, both from around the world and from within the European Union.
“They want control over who has the right to receive benefits and what is expected of them in return. They want to know that foreign criminals can be excluded - or if already here, removed. And they want us to manage carefully the pressures on our schools, our hospitals and our housing.
“If we are to maintain this successful open meritocratic democracy we treasure, we have to maintain faith in Government’s ability to control the rate at which people come to this country.
“And yet in recent years, it has become clear that successive governments have lacked control.
“People want grip. I get that. And I completely agree.”
Mr Cameron’s speech in the JCB factory in Rocester was briefly interrupted by an alarm bell, which he joked must have been triggered by a direct link to the European Commission in Brussels.
Despite speculation ahead of his speech, Mr Cameron made no proposal to impose a cap on numbers of EU migrants, but he did restate his call for citizens of future new EU member states to be denied the right to free movement until their economies have converged with those of existing members.
Mr Cameron said that Britain supports the principle of free movement of EU workers and does not want to “destroy that principle or turn it on its head”.
But he said the right must not be “unqualified” or “absolute” and that arrangements must be agreed to reduce “a vast migration on a scale that has not happened before in peacetime”, which had seen one million EU migrants come to the UK since the 2004 accession of eastern European states.
Britain’s economic recovery had made it a “magnetic destination” for migrants from countries in the ailing eurozone, he said.
But the UK was also attractive to EU immigrants because - unlike many other European states - it does not demand workers make contributions through taxes and national insurance before claiming benefits.
This meant EU migrants were indefinitely able to claim around £600 a month while looking for a job in Britain, while in-work benefits were worth as much as £700 a month - more than twice what they would get in Germany and three times what was available in France - and families were even able to claim welfare for children still living in their home countries.
This imbalance raised “real issues of fairness”, said Mr Cameron, adding: “When trust in the EU is already so low, we cannot afford to leave injustices like this to fester.”
Mr Cameron said his aim was to introduce reforms across the EU, in which case they would apply on a reciprocal basis to UK citizens. But he said he would be ready to see them implemented in a UK-only settlement if agreement across the whole Union was not possible.
In a message to other EU leaders, he warned that voters across Europe had shown by their support for fringe parties in recent elections that they are “frustrated” with the current rules.
“Leadership means dealing with those frustrations, not turning a deaf ear to them,” he said, “and we have a duty to act on them, to restore the democratic legitimacy of the EU.
“So I say to our friends in Europe. It’s time we talked about this properly. And a conversation cannot begin with the word ‘No’.”
Mr Cameron rejected as “defeatism” suggestions that agreement will prove impossible.
“Why is it impossible to find a way forward on this issue, and on other issues, that meet the real concerns of a major member state, one of the biggest net contributors to the EU budget?” he asked.
“I simply don’t accept such defeatism. I say to our European partners, `We have real concerns. Our concerns are not outlandish or unreasonable. We deserve to be heard, and we must be heard’.”
Other EU states must recognise that accommodating Britain’s concerns is “worth it”, because of the benefits the UK’s growing economy and international influence deliver for Europe.
“Here is an issue which matters to the British people, and to our future in the European Union,” said Mr Cameron.
“The British people will not understand - frankly I will not understand - if a sensible way through cannot be found, which will help settle this country’s place in the EU once and for all.”
Asked if the plans would require treaty change, he replied: “The answer to the question is yes. These changes, taken together, they will require some treaty changes.
“There’s a debate in Europe about exactly which bits of legislation, which bits of the treaty you’ll need to change, but there’s no doubt this package as a whole will require some treaty change and I’m confident that we can negotiate that.”