Immigration 2How different the mood music is in the UK where a proposal to discriminate against foreigners for benefits tourism in yesterday's Sunday Times is billed as another persecuted British showdown against an EU determined to impose its will backed by continental countries.

Yet again, Fleet Street's passion for the EU story to be framed in terms of a zero-sum battle cheats the British public of a rational debate on migration and a knowledge that if Britain wants to enforce its welfare laws better it has, like the Germans, a wellspring of European goodwill to do so and the allies to push it through.

The central issue is that the PM, faced with a ferocious anti-immigration campaign in the media and on his backbenches, is determined to tighten the restrictions imposed on Bulgarians and Romanians before the current transitional controls are lifted in January.He could make an announcement as early as this week to denyjobseekers allowance and other benefits to non-UK European citizens.

Cameron is perfectly able to do this within the current law. He could cite emergency powers now in the Treaty to impose such restrictions if he fears an economic threat through uncontrolled immigration, he could seeks reforms to the UK's non-contributory welfare system and he could impose a habitual residence test, meaning EU migrants can receive benefits only until they had been resident in the UK for up to 12 months, instead of the current minimum of three months.

The question is whether he does it alone or with friends. He could:

· act unilaterally by restricting access to employment benefits and face a challenge in the courts. But since a unilateral act is immediate and the court process long, his position in the opinion polls may be bolstered and there would be no downside until well after the general election.

· act by assembling allies to persuade the Commission to agree to benefit tightening all round and tell it to desist from unpopular legal action. This would enable him to build permanent reform into both UK and EU welfare policy with the support of the countries most affected by widespread migration.

Building alliances

The truth is that Cameron will be wary of acting unilaterally without EU diplomatic support. There is growing EU backing for measures to limit the free movement of workers within member states, and Britain is at the forefront of a group of countries which are pressing for change. Germany, Austria, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Spain are arguing for reforms that would allow them to deny benefits to new immigrants and want Britain to stick to building those alliances to achieve European change rather than act unilaterally.

If he chooses the second option Cameron's European policy will be seen to continue its evolution from bolshily using the euro crisis to impose British demands for powers to be repatriated to a more nuanced policy of using allies to foster general demands for reform all round. Instead of demanding powers back, British leaders now talk of enforcing the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality to reclaim control of policies that the public want to be run nationally - a key German aim.

…with vigour

But there is one problem. Britain needs influence, consistently applied. As The Economist lamented:

Not so long ago other European countries often complained that Britain had too much influence in Brussels-over trade and environmental policies, over enlargement, even over language. Few say that any more. Mr Cameron's veto of a fiscal treaty in December 2011 pushed Britain to the margins as most other countries went ahead without it. Britain has alienated Poland and other east European countries, in part by insisting on cuts to "structural" development funds which benefit them. It lacks bureaucratic heft in Brussels, largely because its civil servants do not speak enough languages. Though it has 12.5% of the EU's population, it supplies just 4.6% of the European Commission's staff-and falling.

It would be a tragedy that, just as Britain can, in theory, line up enough friends to push for reform, in practice its patchy diplomatic record potentially diminishes its ability to carry the day, leaving the PM with a choice between an easy, unilateral win which reinforces the UK's perceived isolation and a more difficult, but more enduring change which would reinforce the UK's claim to be a leader of European reform.

The problem is that if the PM wants friends for renegotiation in the years to come, he needs to think of the longer term.

Peter Wilding is the director of British Influence. Follow him on Twitter: @eurorealist