13th Apr 2024


Cameron's tight-rope walk on free movement

  • Cameron is coming under pressure from his Conservative party to demand a cap on EU migration. (Photo:

EU migration will be the key battle in the UK election next year. That’s obvious. Polls show that immigration is the number one issue for British voters; they care about it more than the economy - and after years of debating the recession, cuts and unemployment - that’s saying something.

Party Conference season just ended, and the primary concern Conservative (and Labour) MPs were feeding back from their door-step chats with voters was: “what are you going to do about immigration?’

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A large proportion of voters believe that the UK has no control of its borders, and that EU migrants are putting an unmanageable strain on local resources, draining the welfare system and under-cutting the British labour force. Just this week David Cameron promised his MPs a “big bang” on EU immigration.

What that “big bang” will look like is still unclear, though Number 10 is reportedly floating the idea of an “emergency brake” – a potential curb on the number of migrants from certain EU countries. An announcement is expected before Christmas.

Fairness or volume?

There are two main themes to the UK’s debate on EU migrants. One is in terms of fairness, and the other is in terms of volume. The fairness issue revolves around how to tailor sound and transparent rules governing how and when EU migrants can access social and unemployment benefits. The second revolves around the number of EU migrants coming to the UK.

In its assessment of the UK-EU relationship (the so-called ‘Balance of Competences Review’), the UK government identified migrants’ access to welfare as a key area to renegotiate with the EU. The mainstream parties, including the Liberal Democrats, are all favour of this approach. And in this arena, the UK has allies across Europe, including Germany, Austria, Holland and Denmark - who are having similar domestic debates.

Crucially, EU rules on who can access benefits and when were drafted with a small group of homogenous countries in mind - not 28 member states with vastly different wealth levels and welfare systems, so it makes sense to change them, both from a practical view, and in order to maintain public confidence in the principle of Free Movement.

Still, some of these proposals push the boundaries of EU law — and there are several cases pending at the European Court of Justice that will determine how far they can go. (Germany’s case, for example, as to how long “economically inactive” migrants can be excluded from receiving benefits.) Nonetheless, if re-writing the rules on access to welfare is central is to the UK’s EU renegotiation ahead of a possible in/out EU referendum in 2017 — the chances of reaching some kind of deal are favourable.

But, increasingly, politicians are pressuring Cameron to turn to volume – the calculation being that a deal on fairness will not be enough for the electorate (and for some MPs). For a while now, some Conservative heavy-weights have openly been flirting with the idea. Popular amongst some of Cameron’s rebellious backbenchers is an Australian-style “points-based system” (a UKIP policy.)

Promising too much on migration

Given the sensitivity around immigration, it would be a political death-wish for Cameron to make promises on EU migration that he cannot deliver. The key question is whether the Prime Minister is raising expectations so high at home, that he is setting himself up for failure on any potential renegotiation in Europe.

Taking on the volume issue is a different beast entirely. Any kind of cap on Free Movement - a fundamental tenet of the EU - will certainly require a change in the Treaties: a process which requires unanimous support from the other 27 member states. It's not impossible, but it will be an uphill struggle.

Even if Free Movement becomes an unassailable stumbling bloc in EU-UK negotiations, resulting in a British exit, the challenge doesn’t end there. Brexit negotiations will take place under the notorious Article 50. After two years, the UK will be presented with a take-it or leave-it deal as to its future relations with the EU.

As the leaked tape, in which the Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikosrski accused Cameron of having “f***** it up” in Europe, revealed, even if Britain heads for the exit, it may still find it difficult to block Free Movement. Some EU member states are likely to insist upon Free Movement as a condition for the UK to maintain access to the Single Market. And access to the Single Market is something that even the most ardent “better-off-outers” in Britain insist they want.

All of which underscores that Cameron is treading a fine line. It’s clear he cannot afford to ignore the immigration issue, but in doing so he risks alienating both his partners in Europe and his electorate at home.

The writer is the Communications Director at the Open Europe think tank


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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