Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron wants to restrict access for immigrants to the welfare system. EU officials have harshly criticized the proposals. With his campaign, Cameron is attacking a pillar of the EU.
In Brussels, Laszlo Andor is not exactly known for his explosive nature. So the interview the EU Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs gave the BBC on Wednesday (27.11.2013) bordered on an outburst of fury. "The unilateral action, unilateral rhetoric, especially as it is happening at this time, is not really helpful. It risks presenting the UK as a kind of nasty country in the European Union. We don't want that. We have to look into the situation collectively and if there are real problems react accordingly."
The Commissioner's resentment was caused – yet again – by proposals put forward by British Prime Minister David Cameron. In an article for the 'Financial Times' he announced plans to curb benefits for immigrants from the European Union for three months and "remove" those who don't have a job after nine months.
'Remove' unemployed EU migrants
"If people are not here to work – if they are begging or sleeping rough – they will be removed," he wrote. Cameron explicitly mentioned Romanians and Bulgarians, who will enjoy full freedom of movement of labor in Britain and in the rest of the EU beginning in 2014.
EU law, in theory, allows for the expulsion also of EU nationals. But they can come back the following day. That has to stop, says Cameron. He has long called for a "re-entry ban" – 12 months are planned for Romanians and Bulgarians.
That will be difficult to do under existing law, policy analyst Alex Lazarowicz from Brussels-based think tank EPC believes. "That's a red line under EU law." EU citizens can only be banned from entering another EU state under limited conditions – if they've committed a crime, for instance.
The basic idea behind the freedom of movement is to give EU citizens the option of moving about as freely in the EU as they do in their country of origin (with certain limitations). Restrictions on the free movement of workers may apply to workers from new EU member states for a transitional period of up to seven years. That period runs out for Romania and Bulgaria in January.
"Freedom of movement is non-negotiable"
Cameron, therefore, is launching an attack against one of the EU's fundamental freedoms, without which the internal market is not worth much, say his critics. That's why the criticism from Brussels was instant and brusque. "The freedom of movement for citizens in Europe is a fundamental right which the Commission defends," snapped EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, in charge of EU internal affairs.
Her colleague Viviane Reding topped it in an interview with news agency Reuters: "Free movement is non-negotiable," the Justice Commissioner said. "If Britain wants to leave the single market, you should say so. But if Britain wants to stay a part of the single market, free movement applies. You cannot have your cake and eat it, Mr Cameron!"
The EU will now analyze the government proposals in detail. Cameron has long announced that he wants to renegotiate the rules of freedom of movement and access to the labor market. But he has little chance of success, according to policy analyst Alex Lazarowicz. Changes of the rules would imply restrictions for all EU citizens, and not just for Romanians and Bulgarians, he said. "I really do not think there are other EU countries that are thinking in the same way on this. I don't know if that particular part was for a domestic audience," the British policy expert told Deutsche Welle.
Cameron's (election) campaign
Migration expert Liz Collett with 'Migration Policy Europe', a British citizen like Lazarowicz, believes Cameron is already in election mode. His proposals deliver few details, she told Deutsche Welle. But for her, the tone and the language of the debate are a cause of concern: "The ‘monumental' mistakes by the previous government, the ‘vast' migration, the characterization as this being something that has been done to the UK – when actually most of the evidence suggests that the UK has benefited enormously from free movement."
The language mirrors the current broader negative narrative in Britain, Collett stressed, which to a large extent stemmed from the surge in support for UKIP, the anti-euro and anti-Europe party. "It's a combination of the vocal nature of UKIP, the media in the UK and that toxic mix of euro-skepticism and immigration-skepticism that seems to be at a high tide in the UK." Regardless of the debate on free movement, said Collett, there's an "attitude of negativity" in Britain that, according to her, probably feeds into the perception and leads to minor problems being blown up.
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) supporters hold Union Jack flags and placards as they take part in a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament in central London (Photo: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images) Recent polls suggest the anti-EU UKIP party could win 25 percent of votes at the European elections in 2014.
Cameron is trying to present himself as a man of action, policy analyst Alex Lazarowicz agreed. "Many of the things that he says will no longer happen and are not allowed to happen under EU law anyway. He is making up a tough stance even though many provisions are there at the EU level to ensure that EU citizens who arrive and cannot work cannot immediately get into the benefit system."
Concerns about 'benefits tourism'
They may not call for the same consequences, but other countries share the concern of rising poverty migration from eastern EU states to the west and north. In spring, the interior ministers of Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and Austria published a joint letter warning of the rising risk of benefits fraud.
The European Commission has promised to take action if there is proof that the concern is justified. But the countries have so far failed to deliver evidence that abuse is happening on a massive scale that would justify changes to the rules.
Cameron also has announced his intentions to tighten criteria for immigrants who apply for social benefits. Britain already has tight controls in place regarding the right to benefits – even for other EU nationals in Britain. A legal challenge concerning unequal treatment of British and non-British citizens is currently pending before the European Court of Justice.