Limiting the number of European Union citizens who are allowed to work in Britain is among proposals to curb immigration being looked at by the government, Defence Minister Michael Fallon said on Sunday (26 October).
Fallon, whose governing Conservatives are coming under pressure to harden their line on immigration due to the rise in popularity of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, said that parts of Britain felt “under siege” from an influx of migrant workers.
Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s ties with the EU ahead of a referendum on membership if he wins a 2015 election, and is due to set out in the coming weeks plans for tackling immigration.
“We are looking at the numbers particularly, is it right to allow huge numbers to come in particular sectors, in particular areas of the country without any kind of restraint whatsoever?,” Fallon told Sky News.
Limiting National Insurance numbers, required to work in Britain, was one idea being looked at, he said.
Fallon highlighted the east of England as an area which is receiving many immigrants, but he did not specify which sectors the government was focussed on. A newspaper report last week said Cameron wanted to restrict low-skilled EU migrants.
Many Conservatives fear UKIP, which wants sharply lower immigration and a British EU exit, threatens their re-election chances. It has poached two of Cameron’s lawmakers, this month winning its first elected seat in Britain’s parliament and is on track to win a second in November.
A Opinium poll published in the Observer showed nearly one-third of voters would back UKIP if they believed it could win in their own constituency.
Warning from EU
Outgoing EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso has warned that capping EU migration would be in breach of the bloc’s laws and would go against its fundamental principle of free movement.
“That is the current position. We are looking at changing that to make sure there is some control,” Fallon said.
“We can’t simply say that that has been the rule for 50 years and it can never ever be changed, things have changed in Europe … and we are fully entitled to say this is making a difference to us, that now needs to be dealt with.”
Employment of EU citizens in Britain was 17% higher in the second quarter of 2014 than a year earlier, according to official figures. Net EU migration to Britain in the year ending March 2014 was 131,000, up from 95,000 in the previous year.
Britain’s unemployment rate is falling, with data this month showing it tumbled to 6% in the three months to August, down from 7.7% a year earlier.
In a blow to Cameron’s plans, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted in a British newspaper on Sunday saying she would not back restrictions on the freedom of workers to move around the EU.
But Fallon said she had not yet seen Britain’s proposals.
“Our proposal … is still being worked on at the moment to see what we can do to prevent whole towns and communities being swamped by huge numbers of migrants,” he said.
Fallon’s strong language drew criticism from both the opposition Labour party and his pro-EU junior coalition partner the Liberal Democrats, who said it was based more on the Conservative’s concerns over the UKIP threat than on fact.
“When you talk about an issue which is as difficult as immigration we need to be quite responsible in the words we use,” Liberal Democrat Energy Minister Ed Davey said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly called for curbs on free movement and stoked concerns about migrants from Romania and Bulgaria heading to Britain in search of work or social handouts, despite little evidence of it happening.
His views have caused friction with Nick Clegg, the pro-European deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, who are in coalition with Cameron's Conservatives.
Clegg said Cameron's ideas risk cutting Britain off from Europe and damaging the economy, which benefited substantially from earlier flows of cheaper labour from Poland.
Cameron's spokesman said Britain was not the only country raising concerns, saying Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Italy shared Britain's point of view and wanted the issue of free movement and social security addressed.
EU officials have scolded Britain's ‘chauvinistic’ attitude and reminded Britain that the free movement of citizens is one of the four "fundamental freedoms" enshrined in EU law, alongside the free movement of goods, services and capital.
The free movement of people has long been a cherished component of EU membership, allowing students to move easily to any of the 28 member states to study and workers to seek opportunities abroad.