Public support for the European Union’s freedom of movement rules will dwindle if welfare abuse is not tackled, a top EU official said on Thursday (5 March), saying Britain can drive change in the Europe Union by engaging more with other member states.
Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission, also said stronger economic growth, rather than just EU initiatives, would be key to winning more support for the EU.
“Public support will dwindle if the public thinks that free movement means undermining of social security systems,” said Timmermans in London.
“We need to make sure that it is clear […] while of course you cannot discriminate between nationals of member states, access to the labour market does not mean automatic access to social security systems.”
“Access to labour markets and social security is not the same thing,” he added.
The issue of migration is a major theme in the debate over a referendum on EU membership in the UK. Another is the perception Brussels regulation is too heavy-handed.
Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s EU ties, then hold a referendum on membership, by the end of 2017 if his Conservative Party is re-elected in May.
As the EU executive’s “better regulation” supremo, Timmermans has already withdrawn 70 pieces of planned EU legislation. He said the EU would announce another batch later this year.
“We need to limit action to where it is urgently needed,” he said, “Too often we’ve acted because it would be nice to act.”
The EU needed to return to the principle of subsidiarity and focus on the areas where it was urgent to act. Timmermans laid out three areas where EU action was required.
- Energy Union
- Completion of the digital single market
- Greater enforcement of the rules of the internal market
Speaking in London, Timmermans urged Britain to engage with its European partners to drive reform.
“We can change the beast,” said Timmermans. But he warned against wasting political capital reorganising EU competencies. Instead, “we just need to get on with the job.”
In a charm offensive which included references to British television dramas and football clubs, the Dutchman said Britain had an increasing amount of support in Europe for its reform agenda but Britons too often took a “nobody likes us but we don’t care” attitude.
“Britain can get far better results if it engages with Europe than standing on the sidelines and saying that Europe should change. Britain can drive the change,” he said.
Timmermans also backed a greater role for national parliaments in EU decision making, but he said the onus was on those parliaments to better engage with the process.
“We will all benefit from feeding back the views of national parliaments into EU decision making. But national governments must take the responsibility of taking an interest in Europe if they want influence,“ he said.
Speaking to Reuters, Timmermans said policies such as the Capital Markets Union – an initiative to boost funding for companies – would not be enough to win backing for Europe.
“If it creates more growth, I am sure it will help, but indirectly […] people are much too down to earth in the UK to be convinced just by announcing measures. They want results,” he said.
Critics have said the Capital Markets Union, which the EU hopes will lift growth, could take years to make a difference.
Speaking earlier in the day, Jonathan Faull, Director General at DG Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union urged the financial industry to engage with the process of creating a Capital Markets Union.
Initial plans were laid out in a green paper last month. “It’s a very green paper,” said Faull.
Faull admitted the initiative was unlikely to help Europe’s economic recovery this year, but said “Maybe we’ll get some of Draghi’s magic potion and get things going just by talking about it.”
“Completing the single market is something we should have done a long time ago,” he added.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would try to curb EU immigration if re-elected this year.
Cameron's Conservative Party is under growing pressure from the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) ahead of a May 2015 national election.
He also faces pressure from Eurosceptic lawmakers in his own party who called for tougher rules on immigration within the European Union, in order to curb so-called ‘benefits tourism’.
The European Commission has so far responded coldly, saying there was no evidence to back the claim.
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.
But the campaign by Eurosceptics gained traction in November when the European Court of Justice ruled that member states can block jobless immigrants from receiving specific welfare benefits.