Insiders at the EU Commission said that interior ministers meeting in Brussels next week (5 December) will not form a united front with David Cameron against free movement of workers as they are too divided on the issue.
The migration debate came to the fore this week when UK Prime Minister David Cameron said he would take imminent action to stop EU migrants “taking advantage” of the UK welfare system when Romanian and Bulgarian workers will be allowed to come to Britain from 1 January.
Cameron has launched a crackdown, under pressure from his Eurosceptic backbenchers and the rising threat to his party posed by the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party, which has raised fears of a new wave of immigrants claiming benefits when restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants are lifted.
Earlier this year, Theresa May, the UK’s interior minister, gained support from Germany, Austria and Holland in a letter to the European Commission, demanding tighter restrictions on access to welfare benefits.
The four countries wrote to the EU executive urging the review of the 2004 EU directive that sets out free movement rights allowing migrants from European countries, such as Romania or Bulgaria, to establish residency and to claim welfare benefits.
Commission sources said that there was no emerging group of member states resisting the lifting of restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania.
Differing motives for resistance to free movement
“These countries all have different issues. In Germany, the fear is of a marked rise in the numbers of Roma who might migrate to the large German cities next year, the Dutch are concerned about illegal employment contracts being handed to migrants which do not honour EU rules, and the UK has this problem with so-called “benefits tourism” which is wholly unsubstantiated,” said an EU source familiar with the issue.
This week (25 November), the Commission claimed Romanians and Bulgarians moving to Britain will help the economy, and warned Cameron over his plans to restrict European migrants’ access to benefits.
The Commission said in a report – released in advance of the interior ministers meeting – that EU immigrants in the UK paid more in tax than they received in benefits.
Free movement of labour across members’ borders is a fundamental principle of the EU, and the Commission promised to uphold that right in the face of British resistance.
A spokesman for Employment Commissioner László Andor said that the EU executive would only assess the compatibility with EU law of any new UK law after it had been proposed.
“Once the UK Government has fully clarified any changes it intends to introduce concerning access to benefits, the Commission will seek to ensure that these measures are fully compliant with EU rules on free movement,” said the spokesman.
The Commission confirmed that if the UK went ahead with a law, there could be no financial sanction since the first time a member state is sued in respect of a directive no fines are available.
In accordance with EU law, workers from Bulgaria and Romania currently enjoy full rights to free movement in Denmark, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, Hungary, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Czech Republic.
Restrictions remain in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and the UK. These typically require Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to have work permits.
As of January 2014 – seven years after these countries' EU accessions – those restrictions will be entirely lifted.
- BBC: Benefit tourism claims: European Commission urges UK to provide evidence
- Sveriges Radio: Few proofs of 'benefit tourism' in the EU [In Swedish]
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