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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fairness vs Volume: EU free movement debate hotting up in upper echelons of the Tory party

The Times yesterday noted that pressure among some senior Tories is building on David Cameron to prioritise the negotiation of 'curbs' on the free movement of persons. The word 'curb' is used often in this debate, but it is not always clear what it is that people are demanding be 'curbed'.

There are essentially two issues here: one about fairness - fair, sound and transparent rules around who can access what benefits and when. And one about the level of EU migration - volume. The first is what David Cameron and Downing Street have been trying to address by tightening EU migrants' access to out of work benefits. As we've noted before, more could certainly be achieved through amending legislation at the EU level.

Other issues that arguably fall into this category are access to the UK's system in-work benefits, such as working tax credits, which are meant help to boost incomes at the lower end of the labour market and ease the transition from out of work benefits. However, the UK is currently unable to regulate EU migrants' access to these under the EU's current non-discrimination rules and the definitions of an 'EU worker' set down by EU courts. This is another area that could potentially be addressed to some degree by amending secondary legislation.

But what is clear is that an increasing number of Tory 'big beasts' - Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May and Boris Johnson - are looking to address the second issue: public concerns about the volume of EU migrants (the latest stats showed a marked increase in the number of central and eastern EU workers). This is a much taller ask and would almost certainly require treaty change and therefore unanimity. This does not make it entirely impossible but certainly more difficult than addressing concerns about fairness. Remember, this involves amending one for the most fundamental principles of the EU treaties.

Another massive question is how, exactly, strengthened control over the volume of EU migration could work in practice.  There have already been suggestions that the Home Office is considering options that fall under this category. In May 2012, at the height of the Greek social and economic crisis, it was reported that Theresa May was looking at whether emergency immigration controls could be applied if required by exceptional circumstances. Another proposal, put forward by David Goodhart, is that governments should be able to introduce qualifications or restrictions on free movement "if the EU inflow breaches a cap of, say, 75,000 in a single year".

In any case, this will be a key debate within Tory ranks leading up to the potential 2017 EU referendum.


Average Englishman said...

They can talk about these matters all they like but they will be able to do nothing of any substance without either:

a) agreeing with all of the other countries in the EU to change the current treaties to restrict 'freedom of movement' throughout the EUSSR, or:

b) taking the UK out of the EU altogether.

They won't be able to do the first because the other EU countries will not agree. They won't do the second because Cameron and his pro EUSSR cronies will not agree to it.

So, in the end this is all just more bluster to try and convince some Eurosceptic Tory MP's and of course the much lied to UK voters, that the Government can really do something meaningful on these issues when in practice, they either can't or won't.

Rik said...

Agree for most part with AE.
It will be extremely difficult to change the treaty in that respect. Hard to see the East Block agreeing with that and you need unanimity.

It should not have happened from the start. The only thing realistically that can be done now is stop new Rumenias coming up. Limit new memberstate immigration until a certain GDP level is reached.

This means when the UK public will see this as a deciding factor that an exit like solution will be the only real alternative.
In that respect a bit more interest with the Swiss file would have been expected. Basically they are in a very similar situation. A country with a lot of nett immigration, often by lower incomes and a population that is not really happy with that.
Also imho pretty stupid from the Commission to push this further than strict necessary. If there is one issue that can be a gamechanger in national elections it is immigration.

Denis Cooper said...

The use or abuse of the benefits system by immigrants is no more than a secondary issue. The Tories try to promote it as being the primary issue because they see that as the most effective way to garner support, firstly by inflaming public opinion and secondly by getting some ostensibly restrictive measures in place without the need for EU treaty change.

The real primary issue is that large numbers of foreigners are being allowed and encouraged to come and share our country against the wishes of the great majority of the established body of citizens, and clearly even if the Tories wished to prevent that they could not do so without getting the EU treaties changed in ways which they know to impossible.

Anonymous said...

Colin Moran...Sunderland

May l be the first to make the point l have not yet heard made by any commentator with regard to EU freedom of movement. Freedom of movement requires all member state governments to give absolutely equal ENTITELMENT with their own citizens, who exclusively own the right to have voted for that government. Non citizen's quite correctly do not enjoy any rights to vote in EU member state national elections. An explanation for this undermining and trashing of democracy, from someone please.

Anne Palmer said...

It really is time to close our Border.

I repeat this from above.
"The real primary issue is that large numbers of foreigners are being allowed and encouraged to come and share our country against the wishes of the great majority of the established body of citizens, and clearly even if the Tories wished to prevent that they could not do so without getting the EU treaties changed in ways which they know to impossible"

I will add however, it is time to get out of the EU and be guided by our very own Long Standing Common law Constitution-the only way this Country should be GOVERNED BY. Our Constitution is very clear that, "…all usurped and foreign power and authority…may forever be clearly extinguished, and never used or obeyed in this realm. …no foreign prince, person, prelate, state, or potentate…shall at any time after the last day of this session of Parliament, use, enjoy or exercise any manner of power, jurisdiction, superiority, authority, preeminence or privilege…within this realm, but that henceforth the same shall be clearly abolished out of this realm, for ever."

Rik said...

Not fully agree.
The basis is imho in the UK that people donot want to share their country with a lot of newcomers, but within the newscomers there are very different groups.

First of all nearly all problems and by far the largest part of the irritations is with the bottom part of the immigration.
You hear very little complaints about Swedes, Dutch or even French. It is Poles, Roma and the usual 3rd world bunch.
Furthermore these groups often end up longer term as nett receivers (meaning that things like NHS need to be subsidised by the locals).

People always get irritated by abuse. It is not only the money, often amounts are relatively modest seen the total, still there is where most of the irritation is. And often the misuse is within the groups that have a bad reputation anyway and are often easily distinguishable.

Another important point is that this way (misuse) you erode the welfarestate. Not wanting to pay for Johny Foreigners you donot want in your country anyway is the best excuse not to contribute.

So imho it is both to solve it structurally you have to go for the bulk (which means brake on the influx of non-academic/non-rich 3rd worlders plus change the treaty (which will be difficult). And work on the issues that directly give the most irritation (like abuse of entitlements). At least that is what politicians usually do.

Denis Cooper said...

Rik - among the UK population the typical view of immigration is that there is too much, far too much. Of course if it was reduced down the kind of level which would be tolerable to most people then at the same time it could also become much more selective. However neither of those things is possible while we are in the EU, both quantity and quality are effectively beyond our control and that is simply not acceptable.

dpr said...

@Rik: You are absolutely correct that greater immigration will erode support for the welfare state. Which brings me to a question: shouldn't conservatives be happy as a result? They will find it easier to reduce public spending if the country thinks that it is going to support "other" people. Indeed, there is precedence for this: after the US Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 (sharply lowering immigration levels) the next decades saw the New Deal and the Great Society, with large increases in federal government spending.

That said, I think that the entire debate over welfare benefits has been exaggerated a lot. EU immigrants move to a new nation to work, and they on average pay in far more into the system than they take from it. The freedom of movement for workers is one of the cornerstones of the EU, and as such there is no way that it will get restricted or limited to wealthier nations only (Switzerland has learned this the hard way recently).