Open Europe Blog

Would the UK have zero influence outside the EU? 

Outgoing European Commission President José Manuel Barroso is in London, and he has made a few interesting remarks about the Tories, Brexit, EU free movement and Grant Shapps. Wading into the most intense debate on EU migration in the UK since 1066, he has really hit the headlines. 

However, Barroso no longer has any real say over decisions in the EU – it’s Juncker’s show now, and he has made addressing the UK’s concerns a key priority, although it remains very much an open game. Also, remember, the bulk of Cameron’s renegotiation won’t be with the Commission – it’ll primarily be with member states (though having the Commission on-side will certainly help). 

In any case, Barroso told the BBC‘s Andrew Marr Show yesterday:

“So far the British government has not presented a proposal, a concrete proposal [on reform of EU free movement rules]. There are ideas floating, there are rumours. I cannot comment on specific suggestions that have not yet been presented. What I can tell you is that any kind of arbitrary cap seems to me to be not in conformity with the European rules.”

Barroso is of course right – restricting the number of EU workers coming to the UK, via quotas, would be illegal under EU rules – as we argued in our recent flash analysis and most people agree on. The question is whether changes to these rules are possible – this is a big discussion which we’ve looked at here. However, Barroso also tried to strike a more conciliatory tone when he stressed that there are “widespread concerns in the UK and elsewhere about abuse of free movement rights” and further changes could be made to address them, although “changes to [EU migrants’ access to benefits] need all countries to agree.”

Barroso had some less well-targetted comments, claiming for example, that the UK would be “irrelevant” and “have zero influence” outside the EU, while also appearing to link EU membership to Cameron’s ability to fight the Ebola virus.

At an event this morning, Barroso was also asked about remarks made by Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps, who was sent out yesterday to dismiss Barroso’s comments, calling the outgoing European Commission President “an unelected bureaucrat”. Barroso – now clearly free to let his hair down – went all in:

“Since I was 29 years old, I was elected in my country…I don’t know who this gentleman is, but certainly he has not more democratic legitimacy than I have.” 

Which begs the question, if Barroso doesn’t know who Shapps is, how can he comment on the man’s electoral record? Anyway, it allowed the Tories to play the ‘we stand up to Brussels card’.

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