UK and EU move towards clash on immigration

Mon, 2014-02-10 10:22 AM

Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, has said that there is 'no chance' of a renegotiation of EU treaties resulting in a limitation on the right to free movement of labour within the European Union. Meanwhile, in London, pressure is growing on the UK's Prime Minister David Cameron from Eurosceptic Conservative MPs for just such controls to be introduced.

Mr Schulz was responding to growing calls in the UK for curbs on free movement to be put in place. On 20th December 2013, Mr Cameron told journalists at an EU leaders' summit in Brussels that EU countries must 'slow down access to each other's labour markets'.

Mr Cameron is under considerable pressure from eurosceptics in his own Conservative Party and also from the UK Independence Party which campaigns for the UK to withdraw from the EU in part to limit immigration.

UKIP may come second in May

UK political pollsters believe that UKIP may well come second behind Labour in the EU parliamentary elections which are due in May 2014. You would normally expect the Labour and Conservative Parties to be the top two parties in any poll.

This would be a terrible blow for Mr Cameron. In 2006, he derided UKIP as 'fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists'. Since then, UKIP has increasingly eaten into the Conservative vote.

Dissatisfaction about the European Union and immigration, and about Mr Cameron himself, have seen the UKIP vote grow steadily. Consequently, Mr Cameron is being forced to 'talk tough' on Europe to try to win back support from former Conservative voters.

Tough talk

This 'tough talk' is clearly ruffling feathers in Brussels. Mr Schulz is a committed European. He is from Germany and a member of the left of centre Social Democratic Party. He was elected president of the parliament in 2012. The president controls the sessions of parliament as the speaker does in the Westminster parliament.

Speaking to journalists on 12th January 2014, Mr Schulz conceded that there are increasingly loud calls for reform of the laws governing free movement of labour that come not only from the UK but also from other EU countries.

But he said, 'The principle of free movement has been one of the greatest successes the EU has. It is a fundamental principle and it's not up for negotiation'.

Agreement of all member states

Mr Schulz told journalists that any change to a fundamental precept of the EU such as freedom of movement of labour could only be made with the agreement of all member states. It is most unlikely that newer member states in the east would ever support any curbs on the right of free movement of labour.

A vice-president of the Brussels parliament, Edward McMillan-Scott, a Liberal Democrat MEP from the UK, told UK Sunday paper The Observer 'for the EU to revisit its own fundamental principles of open markets and open frontiers would amount to self-harm. I do not think that the European parliament now or in the future would accept such a major upheaval'.

The fact that senior figures in Brussels are intervening in the debate about free movement of labour in the EU is seen by EU commentators as part of a deliberate strategy to shape public opinion and put the pro-European view on the future of Europe.

Cameron fuelling fears of immigration

Last week, Viviane Reding, a vice president of the European Commission, told a web chat audience that Mr Cameron was fuelling fears of 'a supposed invasion of foreigners coming to the UK and stealing the jobs and stealing the social security and the health money'.

On Sunday 12th January, in the UK, two developments served to highlight the gulf between the EU and the UK on the issue of free movement of labour.

Firstly, The Sunday Telegraph newspaper reported that 95 Conservative MPs have written to Mr Cameron, himself a Conservative, demanding that the UK parliament be given the right to veto laws that come from Brussels.

95 Tory rebels

The 95 MPs, The Sunday Telegraph reports, are led by backbench MP Bernard Jenkin. They particularly want the right to control immigration to the UK and also to prevent EU regulations from being enforced in the UK.

The Sunday Telegraph reports that a further 6 MPs support the aims of the group led by Mr Jenkin. This means that 101 MPs, very nearly one third of Mr Cameron's 304 MPs in the UK's House of Commons, are ready to defy the European Union.

Secondly, the UK's Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith gave an interview to The Sunday Times newspaper in which he said that immigrants from within the EU who come to live and work in the UK should not be able to claim any benefits from the state for two years after arrival.

Friction

Mr Duncan Smith announced a bar on EU citizens claiming benefits for their first three months in the country in December. An increase in this period to two years would be bound to cause friction between the EU and the UK.

Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, has said that the UK should not allow any immigrant to claim any benefits for their first five years in the country.

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