Open Europe Blog

The European Commission just made it a lot more difficult to defend free movement in Europe. Free movement and open borders (two separate but related EU issues) are very difficult things to sell to the public, witness the Bombardier row (which had complicated causes, but partly flowed from competition rules designed to uphold free movement/the EU single market), the Danish restrictions on the Schengen agreement or the Lincolnshire strikes back in 2009.

In public opinion, free movement is usually bundled together with other complex issues such as immigration, the ‘British jobs for British workers’ debate, welfare and potential wage dumping. Economically, we would argue that free movement is on the whole beneficial, but politically, due to its society-changing potential, it’s potentially explosive.

Therefore, free movement has to be treated with silk-gloves, with constant attention paid to national sensitivities. If Europe wants to keep it, national governments simply need to be given some discretion, within reason.

Clearly, this isn’t something that the Commission understands. This week, the Commission threatened to take legal action against the UK’s “right to reside” test on EU nationals, arguing that it violates EU law. Under UK rules, British citizens automatically qualify for benefits such as child benefit, child tax credit, state pension credit, jobseekers‘ allowance and unemployment support. But nationals from other countries have to pass a right to reside test before they can qualify for such benefits. The Commission argues that this practice indirectly discriminates against nationals of another member state, in turn breaching EU rules on social security co-ordination. The Commission insists that existing EU rules on who qualifies as a resident of a different member state are already strict enough to make sure that “only those persons who have actually moved their centre of interest to a member state (other than their own) are considered habitually resident there”.

The Commission’s statement was met with a barrage of criticism in the UK.

Employment Minister Chris Grayling said, “This is a very unwelcome development…I’m really surprised the European Commission has chosen to go into battle on this very sensitive issue, when there are clearly far more pressing problems to solve in Europe.”

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith wrote in the Telegraph:

“These new proposals pose a fundamental challenge to the UK’s social contract. They could mean the British taxpayer paying out over £2 billion extra a year in benefits to people who have no connection to our country and who have never paid in a penny in tax. This threatens to break the vital link which should exist between taxpayers and their own Government.”

“France, Germany and Denmark have all spoken out against the commission’s insistence on issuing this week’s provocative decision on benefit payments. This decision confirms the worry that the EU is pulling more areas of national competence into its fold. Yet these are decisions taken outside of national democratic processes by unelected and unaccountable institutions.”

Given the recent statements from various prominent Labour party figures, apologising for “getting it wrong” on EU immigration, the Commission is likely to face more or less united UK opposition.

Even supporters of free movement will find it hard to see how the UK’s “right to reside” tests are unreasonable. The Commission is now picking a fight with several EU countries, on the hugely sensitive issue of “welfare tourism” at a time when populist parties are on the rise across Europe.

Either the Commission backs down, or it risks facing a massive backlash.

As we’ve mentioned before, if the Commission wants to squash all public support for the EU, it’s doing a pretty good job.

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