The European Commission hit back yesterday (27 November) against the UK Prime Minister’s announcement of a crackdown on immigration rules, saying that freedom of movement in the EU is “non-negotiable” and castigating David Cameron for “presenting the UK as a nasty country”.
Writing in yesterday’s Financial Times, Cameron vowed to deport vagrants, restrict the right of foreign nationals to social benefits and called for new rules to stop “vast migrations” of Romanians and Bulgarians, insisting Europe had to reform “to regain the trust of its people”.
Cameron said he shared the “deep concerns” of many in the UK about the impact of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens having the same rights to work in the UK as other EU citizens from the beginning of next year, when restrictions on their freedom of movement are lifted.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner László Andor warned against “hysteria” and described Cameron’s interjection as “an unfortunate overreaction”.
“Two thirds of migrants to the UK are from non-EU countries, we need a more accurate impression of the EU picture,” Andor said, adding that the British public “has not been given the full truth” on immigration.
“This unilateral rhetoric is not helpful because it risks presenting the UK as a nasty country in the EU. We don’t want that. If there are real problems we need to act proportionately and not in such a way,” Andor said.
The EU's Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding later told journalists that free movement of people is “a fundamental pillar of the free market”, along with freedom of movement of goods, services and capital, which the UK has championed.
UK business, tourists benefit from Bulgarian, Romanian relations
“You sign up to all four [freedoms] or to none,” Reding said, adding that “freedom of movement is non-negotiable as long as you are a member of the EU and the Single Market”.
“There are a lot of businesses and services in the UK that benefit from this [freedom of movement]: UK banking interests in Romania and Bulgaria, British tourists, there are whole British villages of holidaymakers who have bought a house there,” Reding said.
Cameron also came under fire from UK politicians, including those from within his governing Coalition, but significantly no mainstream political parties attacked the underlying policy.
"We don’t support David Cameron when he says he wants to change the rules on freedom of movement. For him, that’s a perfectly legitimate aspiration, but we don’t support it. So, if it happens, it’s not in this Parliament," said UK MEP Graham Watson, frm the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats fro Europe (ALDE) party. The Liberals govern in coalition with Cameron’s Conservatives.
Much will depend on whether Cameron’s proposals, when spelled out in detail, are deemed to breach EU rules, which could possibly lead the Commission to take Britain to court.
Nonetheless Watson said that he agreed with Cameron on some issues, saying that the founders of the EU “did not intend to allow free movement of people living on benefits”.
“It is a disgrace, but there are 10,000 British people in Germany enjoying unemployment benefits and living there,” Watson said in an interview with EURACTIV.
Liberals and Labour parties cautious on criticism
The main opposition Labour party condemned Cameron’s government for "flailing around" with its proposals. However Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper stopped short of condemning the proposals themselves.
The only clear dissent within the UK came from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose growing support – arising in part from fears relating to immigration – has rattled mainstream politicians.
Nigel Farage, UKIPs leader, condemned Cameron’s policy for not going far enough.
“I would still say he’s being far too generous,” said Farage, adding: “It doesn’t sound tough to me because under his proposal somebody can come here on January 1 from Romania and within twelve weeks be entitled to unemployment benefit. I think that’s outrageous.”
Theresa May, the UK's home secretary, said there was a growing coalition of support among EU member countries to stop unqualified freedom of movement within the bloc. The Commission believes the potential for such a coalition is unlikely, since member states sharing fears on immigration have very different reasons for doing so.
Insiders at the European Commission believe that interior ministers meeting in Brussels next week (5 December) will not form a united front with David Cameron against free movement of workers.
However a Financial Times report today (28 November) suggested that France and Germany may lend Cameron's proposal support.