German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday she was pleased British Prime Minister David Cameron had upheld the freedom of movement for EU workers in plans unveiled last week on migrant rights.
Cameron laid out a blueprint for restricting EU migrants’ access to welfare benefits on Friday, but stopped short of proposing quotas or demanding that Britain be allowed to halt inflows if it felt too many people were settling in the country.
Under the European Union’s freedom of movement rules, EU citizens are entitled to work anywhere in the bloc. That has seen hundreds of thousands of EU nationals come to work in Britain, which has the group’s fastest-growing economy.
Speaking at a news conference in Berlin, Merkel stressed that freedom of movement was an essential pillar for the European Union. “We are pleased that this was not put into question by the British prime minister,” she said.
“The proposals that were presented now need to be discussed in detail,” she added, saying that Germany and the European Commission would have a close look at Cameron’s propositions.
British media has said the prime minister pulled back from trying to introduce a cap on EU workers after the intervention of Merkel, who had warned that such a measure would be illegal.
London denied that Merkel had made Cameron modify his plans.
With polls indicating that immigration is the top concern for British voters, Cameron is under pressure to get tough on the issue ahead of a May parliamentary election.
He says he wants employed EU migrants to wait four years before being allowed to access welfare benefits, and for unemployed EU migrants not to be eligible for any help.
Cameron has said his plans would need an EU treaty change — a step other EU leaders have baulked at — but it was not immediately clear why treaty change would be needed.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage ironised Cameron said: “What we saw was a prime minister playing catch up, once again behind the curb, very scared of the UKIP vote, realising he’s out of touch. It’s taken him ten years, ten long years to understand the scale of the problem with in-work benefits.
He also argued that it’s not possible to contain immigration as EU member “because we have total open borders with the other member states. The prime minister himself said that is something he isn’t going to challenge”, Farage said.
Lib Dems leader Nick Clegg has said that there were “very serious question marks” about some of David Cameron’s plans, but that others are sensible.
“I think the danger for the Conservatives is that they repeat mistakes of the past, where they’ve over-promised and under-delivered on immigration, as they did on the net immigration target, which they’ve missed, and that does a great deal of damage to public confidence in the immigration system. That’s why I think it’s always important to focus on changes which are workable, credible, and deliverable in practice”, Clegg said.
Under growing pressure from the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) ahead of a May 2015 national election, and from some of his own lawmakers, Cameron has said he would try to curb EU immigration if re-elected.
Critics of Cameron argue his approach to the EU could undermine its principle of freedom of movement.
Cameron's Conservatives want to stop what they regard as welfare abuse by poor immigrants from eastern Europe with no jobs and no health coverage, and ease pressure on local services, such as health and housing. Critics accuse him of exaggerating the problem to curry favour with voters who might turn to UKIP.