Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker told UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage last night (10 July) the free movement of workers in the EU was a non-negotiable fundamental right but added he did not believe in a “United States of Europe”.
Farage said that ignoring the issue of migration in the EU would only push the UK closer to leaving the European Union in a future referendum, which is penciled in for 2017.
Juncker said that some powers could be repatriated to the UK as part of a reform of the EU. But he told one UKIP MEP, William Dartmouth, that there would be no change to rules guaranteeing the free movement of workers in the EU.
The former Luxembourg Prime Minister made the comments during a grilling by Eurosceptic MEPs from Farage’s Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group in the European Parliament. He has spent the last days meeting groups before Parliament approves his appointment on 15 July.
Farage said afterwards, “We had a polite exchange of views but Mr Juncker made it absolutely clear that on the question of the free movement of peoples across the European Union, there was no question of any negotiation of that position.
“He showed himself to be completely out of touch by saying migration within the EU was a ‘marginal issue.’ In saying this, he will take the UK closer to the EU exit door.”
Migration has been a cornerstone of UKIP’s national campaigning. Mr Juncker said free movement was “a fundamental right” but said member states had the right and a duty to tackle abuse.
“European nations have to be respected,” Juncker told Farage, “I don’t believe in a United States of Europe.”
Juncker faced strong opposition from UK Prime Minister David Cameron before his appointment was backed by the Council of Ministers. He is seen by Cameron as an old style federalist, who cannot reform the EU.
According to UKIP MEPs, Juncker said the European elections had given him a mandate to lead the Commission but that there was no such thing as a “European people” during a discussion over whether direct democracy could work in the EU.
Juncker’s appointment as president will come after the European People’s Party parties won the most votes in the May elections. He was the EPP’s lead candidate, or Spitzenkandidat in a poll pitched as a US president-style race to lead the Commission.
Smoking and drinking
The two men laughed and joked with each other during the question and answer session.
The UKIP leader told Juncker, who has faced criticism for alleged heavy drinking, “We have been told you like a drink, you’re a smoker. We couldn’t care less.”
Juncker promptly asked, “Can I have a cigarette?”
Afterwards Farage said, “We are very pleased that Mr Juncker chose to come and speak to the most eurocritical group in the European Parliament which says something about him as a person.
“He also shocked us and is clearly trying to charm the sceptical vote in the Parliament by denying the existence of a European people. This runs contrary to everything I have heard here after being a member of the European Parliament for the last 15 years.”
Juncker also raised the prospect of “harmonising” tax rates across the EU, which the UK government would resist.