It’s useful to compare the Prime Minister’s detailed piece in today’s Financial Times about Government action on Romanians and Bulgarians with Sir Andrew Green’s recent, detailed piece for this site on the same subject. In relation to benefits, the sum of Sir Andrew’s case was that though something can be done about out-of-work benefits, nothing much can be done about in-work benefits. For EU migrants to have no recourse to public funds for five years, as is the case for most other migrants, “would require renegotiation of the Treaties and would be opposed, tooth and nail, by the EU Commission”. Sir Andrew also wrote that we have are no powers to remove EU citizens unless they have been convicted of an offence which attracts a two year prison sentence. “Put another way, those who come and are unable to support themselves (whatever their original intentions) cannot be forced to leave.”
David Cameron says that the Government will change the rules so that out of work benefits will not be paid for the first three months, and after that period any benefits will be paid for six months only (“unless they can prove they have a genuine prospect of employment”). He’s thus proposing to act as Sir Andrew suggested, which is very welcome. There will also be a new minimum earnings threshold for benefits “such as income support”. The Prime Minister goes on to say that “if people are not here to work – if they are begging or sleeping rough – they will be removed”. This plan seems to be incompatible with Sir Andrew’s take on the powers that we have to remove EU citizens. However, he suggests since the Germans, French and Dutch would welcome member states having the power to return migrants who can’t support themselves to their countries of origin, it’s worth pressing for change.
In the longer-term, the Prime Minister wants to stop exporting child benefit, and to restrict the free movement of peoples within the EU. “There are various ways we could achieve this. One would be to require a new country to reach a certain income or economic output per head before full free movement was allowed. Individual member states could be freed to impose a cap if their inflow from the EU reached a certain number in a single year.”
Since, as Sir Andrew said, Romanians and Bulgarians will have full access to all other EU countries on January 1 (“unlike 2004, when only Ireland and Sweden joined us in opening our labour force to the Poles and others”), it may be that the influx from both countries is less than expected. Furthermore, the Bulgarian Ambassador has claimed that not a single work permit request from his country has been rejected during the past, which may also point towards the same outcome. None the less, it would be foolish not to presume that there will be a significant flow of people from both countries next year. In a nutshell, Cam will do what he can – and even that it likely to be picked over by the lawyers. But no restriction on in-work benefits, and a three-months-and-six-months restriction on out-of-work ones, will strike many voters as small beer.
As for restrictions on free movement, it may well be that the northern European countries like the look of the Prime Minister’s ideas: after all, their welfare systems are also coming under strain, and their politicians are also feeling the pressure (from voters). But freedom of movement is one of the foundation ideals of the European project, and most southern European countries are unlikely to take the same view. A state must be able to control its own borders if its rule is to have effect and, as matters stand, Britain has effectively ceded that power under the terms of our EU membership. As I wrote last week, the best course that Cameron could take is “to announce that his personal view is now that Britain should leave the EU unless its commitment to the free movement of people is torn up in any renegotiation – which, of course, it won’t be”.