UK Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday (6 January) that he would “look at arguments” to make it harder for nationals from EU countries to settle in Britain and claim social security benefits.
In a televised appearance on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Cameron was asked if the free movement of people inside the European Union could be limited in order to give Britain more control over its borders as part of a renegotiated relationship.
“One of the key reasons to be a member of the European Union are the key freedoms, the movement of services, the movement of goods, the movement of people," Cameron replied. "And there are restrictions already on the movement of people, if you have for instance an emergency”.
The UK Prime Minister was referring to the new Schengen rules that allow countries to reintroduce border controls, if one state persistently fails to stop illegal migrants from entering Europe's border-free zone. The measure has been severely criticised by the European Parliament.
The Prime Minister continued: “Should we look at arguments about should it be harder for people to come and live in Britain and claim benefits: yes, frankly, we should. So there are areas even in the free movement of people where we may want to make changes”.
The British press has also linked the British Prime Minister’s comments on reforming freedom of movement to the lifting of work restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians from 31 December 2013.
Bulgarian and Romanian nationals may not be the only one targeted. Reports say that immigrants from ‘older’ EU members, such as Italy, Spain and Portugal may also be setting their sights on the UK.
When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in January 2007, a maximum period for work restrictions of seven years was agreed in their joint Accession Treaty. Most EU countries have since lifted the restrictions, but the UK is one of those still requiring work permits of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens. The others are Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta and the Netherlands.
Some of the UK's eurosceptic press have claimed that a high percentage of impoverished Bulgarian and Romanian youths would seek to emigrate to the UK for a better life. A similar campaign in 2006, before the two countries' EU accession treaty, evoked fears of a massive exodus, which didn’t take place.
Cameron said the UK government was conducting a “proper process” to assess the need for reform, calling a “balance of competences review” between Britain and the EU. He invited the public to review “competence after competence, area after area”, and express views on “what is right at the European level and what is right at national level”.
Cameron also made it clear he planned to win the next election and stay as Prime Minister until 2020. He also said it was “perfectly acceptable” for Britain to make demands, in exchange for other countries negotiating a closer union.
Asked whether the UK should leave Europe, he said: “I don’t think it would be right for Britain. My policy, my approach is determined absolutely, purely, and simply by the national interest. What is right for Britain? What is right for people in work? What’s right for British business? What’s right for the future of our country?”
“Fifty per cent of our trade is with the European Union. At the moment, because we’re in this single market, we have a seat at the table in the single market, we help write those rules. If we were outside the EU altogether, we’d still be trading with these European countries but we’d have no say,” Cameron said.
The UK Prime Minister said he would explain his ideas in more detail in a major speech later this month.