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17th Jan 2022

UK asked to avoid 'hysterical' debate on migration

  • Cameron: 'Since 2004, we have witnessed the biggest migration in Europe outside wartime' (Photo: consilium/europa.eu)

EU commissioners on Wednesday told the UK to avoid "hysteria" and to be more factual after Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled proposals to tighten migrants' access to social welfare payments.

"I would really applaud if on all these questions we could come down to earth again, look at facts and figures, see what has to be done in order to solve the small problems," said EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding.

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Her colleague in charge of social affairs, Laszlo Andor, also said that facts were scarce in the current debate on migrants' rights.

He noted that Cameron linked EU enlargement and migration, but said that "about two-thirds of the migrants go to the United Kingdom from non-European countries."

"There are existing EU rules and safeguards against the so-called benefit tourism," he told BBC radio.

"If we look at jobseeker's allowance: if someone newly arrived in the UK or in another country, it is the home country which in the first place needs to cover its necessary jobseeker's allowance and not the receiving country. So they would need a more accurate presentation of the reality not under such pressure [and] not under such hysteria, which sometimes happens in the UK," he added.

The rebukes come after Cameron, writing in the Financial Times, said he shared the concerns of people worried about the "impact" of Romania and Bulgarian citizens on the UK.

At the end of the year, remaining restrictions preventing citizens from the two countries from moving freely around the EU will be lifted.

Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, he accused the previous labour government of a "shameful dereliction of duty" for not applying the restrictions in 2004 when eight countries joined the EU.

"They predicted 40,000 Polish people would arrive to work in Britain. In the event, the number was over 700,000," he said.

Under Cameron's plans, new migrants would not receive out-of-work benefits for the first three months of arriving in the UK. Payments would be stopped after half a year unless the claimant has a "genuine" chance of a job.

They would also not be allowed to claim housing benefits straight away while those caught begging or sleeping rough will be removed "and barred from re-entry for 12 months"

The proposals come as Cameron is under increasing pressure from his conservative party to be tougher on immigration issues as it risks losing ground to the UK Independence Party as well as being out of tune with voters.

The commission has not yet said whether the proposals will be breach EU rules but Andor called them an "unfortunate over-reaction" and said the "unilateral rhetoric" risked portraying the UK as a "nasty country" in the EU.

The commission and the UK are already locked in a legal battle over the "right to reside" test that London applies when determining whether non-UK residents are entitled to social security benefits.

The commission has also asked the UK, as well as Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, for more evidence about assertions about widespread benefit tourism. All four countries have called for a change in the current rules.

Last month, Brussels itself published a study saying that EU citizens move from one member state to another overwhelmingly for work reasons and not to claim welfare.

Any changes on access to benefits would first have to be proposed by the commission and would need to be supported by a qualified majority of member states as well as the parliament.

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