Open Europe Blog

UPDATE: The Prime Minister has now given his conference speech. This is the passage on EU migration:

“Immediate access to our welfare system, paying benefits to families back home, employment agencies signing up people from overseas, not recruiting here, numbers that have increased faster than we in this country wanted and at a level that was too much for our communities and for our labour markets. All of this has to change and it will be at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe. Britain: I know you want this sorted, so I will go to Brussels, I will not take no for an answer and when it comes to free movement I will get what Britain needs.”

So, no new policy announcement today. However, David Cameron’s reference to the “numbers that have increased” and “at a level that was too much for our communities” leaves the question we posed below hanging. He could argue that tackling migrants’ access to benefits (particularly in-work benefits) will help with the numbers, as it could reduce the incentive for some to migrate, particularly those at the lower end of the job market. Will he be prepared (or be allowed) to stop there?

Original post: The Times and the Mail today both feature stories on the increasing pressure on David Cameron to take a stronger stance on migration from the EU.

The Times suggests that senior figures within his party are calling on him to use his renegotiation to explore the introduction of quotas on migrants from existing EU member states. It quotes London Mayor Boris Johnson saying that

“We all want change, we all want a renegotiation. We want sensible control of the numbers of people coming in. I think you would agree that it is the right and duty of every state to have some idea of how many people want to settle in its boundaries, what jobs they propose to do there, and how much they cost the local authorities. Isn’t that fair enough?”

As we have noted before, the free movement debate is about fairness and volume. So far, David Cameron and his Ministers have concentrated on the former – rules on migrants’ access to benefits can be changed through secondary EU legislation via QMV and co-decision with MEPs and there is widespread support for addressing the issue among like-minded countries in Northern Europe. David Cameron is also on the record saying that he wants new conditions placed on migrants from countries that join the EU in future. However, the latter issue, addressing the numbers of migrants coming from existing EU member states is much tougher – it means addressing what is seen as a fundamental tenet of the EU and altering it would require unanimous agreement, almost certainly via treaty change.

Home Secretary Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond have both been quoted on the subject today, but both have stuck to line that an ’emergency brake’ or measures to tackle the numbers of migrants would apply to new members of the EU, not existing ones.

May said:

“This is an area where David Cameron and I have said we need to look to the future to talk about the rules, particularly for countries coming into the EU in the future, and putting some sort of brake on their access to full free movement. For example, one idea we’ve suggested is they shouldn’t have full free movement rights until their GDP, their economy, is at a certain level compared to other economies within the EU.”

Similarly, Hammond told an Open Europe fringe event that:

“It isn’t going to be enough just to look at benefit abuse…We are going to have to look at how we accommodate future new member states with the implementation of free movement, future new member states and how we restrict them. We are going to have to look at how we deal with destabilising flows.”

There has been speculation that Cameron will address the issue in some way in his conference speech today, it will be interesting to see how he treads what is an increasingly fine line.

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