Cameron: ‘Free movement in EU needs to be less free’

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David Cameron will announce a crackdown on European Union immigration rules, vowing to deport vagrants, restrict the right of foreign nationals to social benefits and call for new rules to stop “vast migrations” of Romanians and Bulgarians, the UK premier wrote in the Financial Times wrote today (27 November).

In a wide-ranging op-ed, Cameron insists Europe has to reform “to regain the trust of its people”, amid fears that from 1 January the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania will have the same rights to work in the UK as other EU citizens.

Cameron writes that “many people” in the UK are “deeply concerned” about the impact this could have in Britain, saying he shares this concern.

Indeed, rightwing populist forces, such as the UK Independence party, with support from the tabloid press, have spread fears of the massive arrival of Bulgarians and Romanians after 1 January.

Bulgarian and Romanian nationals have already been free to travel to the UK since their country’s EU accession, on 1 January 2007. The lifting of the labour restriction will not change the situation significantly, think-tanks have said.

>> Read: UK report rebuffs Cameron on migrants from Bulgaria, Romania

Cameron reminds that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Britain has been the biggest cheerleader for EU enlargement. Indeed, his predecessor Tony Blair had championed the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, especially after these two countries offered their airspace to the NATO-led air strikes against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in 1999.

Cameron blames the Labour government for not having learned lessons from the 2004 enlargement and giving Bulgarians and Romanians full access to the UK labour market after a seven-year transitional period.

Measures against ‘benefit tourism’

In his op-ed, Cameron writes that his government is changing the rules so that no one can come to the UK and expect to get social benefits immediately. Newly arrived EU nationals will not be paid work benefits for the first three months. After that, EU nationals will only be able to claim benefits for a maximum of six months unless they can prove they have a genuine prospect of employment, Cameron writes.

The European Commission has repeatedly said that member states, including the UK, have been unable to substantiate their claims that economic migrants from other member states were putting  their welfare systems to the test.

>> Read: EU takes UK to court over labour restrictions

“We are also toughening up the test which migrants who want to claim benefits must undergo. This will include a new minimum earnings threshold. If they don’t pass that test, we will cut off access to benefits such as income support. Newly arrived EU jobseekers will not be able to claim housing benefit,” Cameron writes.

In what appears to be a reference to Roma populations from Bulgaria and Romania, the UK Prime Minister writes that “if people are not here to work – if they are begging or sleeping rough – they will be removed”, and that they will then be “barred from re-entry for 12 months, unless they can prove they have a proper reason to be here, such as a job”.

Proposals for the EU

Without naming Turkey, Cameron refers to possible future EU accessions, and says the EU should put in place “new arrangements that will slow full access to each other’s labour markets until we can be sure it will not cause vast migrations”.

He suggests imposing restrictions on movement until a country’s GDP per head reaches a certain share of the European average or allowing each country to set an annual cap on EU migrants.

Cameron will put the ideas at the heart of his proposed renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU ahead of a planned referendum in 2017.

“We are not the only country to see free movement as a qualified right: interior ministers from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands have also said this to the European Commission,” Cameron writes.

The package which Cameron is expected to publicly present today (27 November) was backed by the Tories coalition partners, the LibDems, as “sensible and reasonable”, the Guardian writes.

The newspaper also warns that some Tory MPs are unlikely be satisfied with the package. A group of 40 Tory backbenchers are reportedly calling for the immigration bill, currently in the Commons, to be toughened up so that the existing transitional controls on Romanians and Bulgarians are retained until 2018. Such a move that would put the UK at loggerheads with the European Union, the Guardian adds.

Insiders at the EU Commission told EURACTIV that interior ministers meeting in Brussels on 5 December will not form a united front with Cameron against free movement of workers as they are too divided on the issue.

>> Read: Cameron isolated on push for free movement restrictions

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 a work permit.

As of January 2014 – seven years after these countries' EU accessions – those restrictions will be entirely lifted.

  • 5 Dec.: EU interior ministers meet in Brussels

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