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10th Apr 2020

Mooted UK migrant cap would be 'illegal'

  • Home secretary Theresa May wants to slow migration flows into the UK (Photo: The Council of the European Union")

The European Commission has said reported UK plans to cap the number of EU migrants entering the country to 75,000 annually would be illegal.

“Any such restrictions would be illegal under the current rules,” European commission spokesperson Jonathan Todd told reporters in Brussels on Monday (16 December).

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Home Office documents leaked to British daily Sunday Times say the policy shift is necessary to protect low-skilled UK workers from foreign competition and to stop social welfare abuse by EU migrants.

But a research director at the London-based think tank Open Europe doubts the veracity of the leak.

“It is not yet clear where this proposal for a 75,000 cap has come from or whether it is being seriously considered as policy,” Stephen Booth said.

He noted UK prime minister David Cameron and his home secretary Theresa May have both suggested transitional controls based on economic criteria or an annual cap on migrants for new countries that join the EU in the future.

“This would not apply to existing member states,” he said.

The Home Office leak reportedly says the cap would lower net migration flows down to around 30,000 per year from around the current 106,000. People wanting to move the UK, no matter where they come from in the EU, would first be required to have a job lined up.

Other suggestions include prohibiting access to social benefits and blocking tax credits for the first five years of residence.

The restrictions would entail revising the EU treaties and associated fundamental rules on the free movement of people.

The issue is highly politicised in the UK as seven-year transitional labour restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania are set to expire in January.

Bulgarian and Romanian nationals wanting to work in the UK currently have to apply for accession worker cards.

UK authorities say EU migrants are shopping around for hand outs and place too many financial burdens on British housing, schools, and health care.

An EU diplomat close to the issue earlier this month noted that ministers are more concerned about public perception than evidence of widespread abuse.

“One or two cases of foreign abuse is one or two cases too many,” said the contact.

In Brussels earlier this month, UK home secretary Theresa May had floated a similar idea to link free movement to minimum income thresholds.

Todd described such potential restrictions as a “massive own goal for the UK economy and the UK welfare system” because EU migrants tend to pay more in tax and social security to the welfare system of the host country than they receive in benefits.

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