Britain and Poland in diplomatic breakdown after immigrant benefit comments

David Cameron's relationship with one of his closest European allies was at risk of breaking down today, after the Polish prime minister lashed out at moves to restrict benefits for his countrymen in the UK.

Donald Tusk, the leader of Poland’s centre-right government, said he would be speaking to the prime minister today to "clarify the issue" after Cameron said he would try to introduce new rules preventing child benefits being paid to offspring back home.

Cameron made the suggestion on Sunday, in a comment which singled out Polish workers and caused widespread anger in the Polish press and political class.

"There are European countries who, like me, think it's wrong that someone from Poland who comes here and works hard – and I'm absolutely all in favour of that – but I don't think we should be paying child benefit to their family back at home," he said.

The Polish prime minister called the comments "unwarranted and unacceptable" and reminded his counterpart that the benefit rules also applied to British citizens working elsewhere in the EU.

At a press conference yesterday, he said Poland would veto efforts to change EU treaties on child benefit rules.

"We will not agree to changes that would stigmatise any particular national minority," Tusk said.

"Prime minister Cameron has the right to change the rules in his country but they must apply to all beneficiaries of the system; not just a specific group. Nobody has the right to single out Poles as a particular group that abuses or exploits something."

He added: "Many times I have seen Englishmen behave, to put it delicately, reprehensibly in Krakow, Gdansk or Warsaw, but it never occurred to me use their loutish behaviour to smear everybody from Britain."

Speaking after their phone call, a Downing Street spokesperson said: "The PM emphasised that this was a pan-EU issue relevant to all member states and people should engage with the substance of the PM's proposals. Moving forward, they agreed to hold further bilateral discussions on how the UK and Poland can work together to better manage the impact of intra-EU migration on social security systems."

Oxford-educated Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski also lashed out at the comments, tweeting: "If Britain gets our taxpayers, shouldn't it also pay their benefits? Why should Polish taxpayers subsidise British taxpayers' children?

"UK social security rules apply to all resident EU citizens. No need to stigmatise Poles. What about British children abroad?"

There was harsh criticism of Cameron's comments in the mass-market Gazeta Wyborcza, the Warsaw Voice and the Warsaw Business Journal.

Some sources suggest the row is severe enough to push Poland's opposition party, Law and Justice, out of the Tories' coalition of eurosceptic members in the European parliament.

Britain and Poland frequently work together at the European level and Cameron will be relying on Polish goodwill when he tries to secure reforms ahead of a possible EU referendum.