The European Commission has reacted calmly to a landmark speech by David Cameron on immigration delivered today (28 November), conveying the message that the UK Prime Minister’s rhetoric is shaped by the electoral cycle, with the Tories struggling to contain the anti-EU UKIP party ahead of the May 2015 elections.
As expected, Cameron said the EU should change its rules on immigration, and if his country’s concerns fall on deaf ears, he would “rule nothing out”, meaning that the UK would consider leaving the Union.
He delivered his “immigration speech” in a tractor factory in Staffordshire, the staging suggesting that his ideas would benefit the traditional working class.
Minutes after his speech, Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas was asked to comment. He read from a text prepared in advance, saying that Cameron’s plans should be discussed “calmly”.
“These are the UK’s ideas and they are part of the debate. They will have to be examined without drama and should be discussed calmly and carefully. It is up to national lawmakers to fight against abuses of the system and EU law allows for this”, Schinas said.
No holy principles
On whether changes could be made to EU rules on the free movement of people, Cameron rejected the claim that his proposal is undermining a sacrosanct pillar of the EU.
“It will be argued that freedom of movement is a holy principle – one of the four cardinal principles of the EU, alongside freedom of capital, of services and of goods – and that what we are suggesting is heresy”.
He went on to argue that the other three freedoms have also yet to be fully implemented.
“It is still not possible for a British optician to trade freely in Italy, or a French company to raise funds in Germany. It is still not possible for consumers to access their Netflix or iTunes accounts across borders in the EU,” Cameron said.
‘Our welfare system is a national club’
Cameron said he will insist that EU nationals living in the UK and wanting to claim tax credits and child benefit “must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years”. He insisted that EU nationals would not be considered for social housing unless they lived in the UK for at least four years.
“This is about saying: our welfare system is like a national club. It’s made up of the contribution of hardworking British taxpayers”, Cameron said, omitting the fact that foreign workers also pay taxes.
Cameron also said that his government will scrap the jobseeker’s allowance of 600 pounds for EU workers. He added that EU workers who want to move to the UK should have found a job before they arrived.
Free movement – not for future EU members
The UK prime minister said that he would insist that when new countries are admitted to the EU in the future, free movement would not apply to those new members until their economies have converged much more closely with existing member states.
“Future accession treaties require unanimous agreement of all member states. So the UK will ensure this change is included,” he said.
Cameron also said he wanted to negotiate these changes for the whole of the EU, but if that proved impossible, he would want to see his policy changes included in a UK-only settlement.
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.
The leader of the Lib Dems 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.
Cameron's bid to cap immigration in a more systematic way has provoked warnings from the European Commission, which regards freedom of movement as sacrosanct.
In a study published last year, the Commission found little evidence of "benefits tourism" happening in Europe. In most countries, EU migrants represent less than 5% of welfare beneficiaries and these migrants make an overall net contribution to the finances of their host countries because they pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits, the study found.
Cameron has promised to try to reshape Britain's EU ties before holding a referendum on the country's EU membership by 2017 if he wins next year's election.
- May 2015: UK general election
- 2017: Proposed date for UK's referendum on EU membership
- EURACTIV France: La Commission sereine face aux positions de Cameron sur l'immigration
- EURACTIV Germany: Camerons Anti-Einwanderungsrhetorik lässt die EU-Kommission kalt