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Why David Cameron will struggle to out-Ukip Ukip on EU migration

Summary:
As I point out repeatedly, the debate about EU migration and free movement has two separate, but related, dimensions: “fairness” – who can access what benefits and when; and “volume” – how many migrants come to the UK every year. So far, David Cameron has been sticking to fairness, seeking to change the EU rules on both out of work benefits such as job-seekers allowance, and in-work benefits such as tax credits. In my view, this is the right focus. EU free movement is a net benefit to the UK but also comes with challenges, in particular to certain sectors of society such as the low-paid. In order for it to stand in face of increasing pressure, governments need to be able to demonstrate to citizens that they have control over their welfare systems and that public policies to get people from welfare into work, such as tax credits, can be targeted at those who need them most. Bringing back such control will go a long way to address people’s concern about immigration. There is also support in other EU countries for these changes, and it wouldn't require EU Treaty change, so it’s achievable. However, with Ukip breathing down his neck and a by-election nigh, Cameron is reportedly now thinking about going further, potentially curbing the volume of EU migrants. This is very tricky territory.

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As I point out repeatedly, the debate about EU migration and free movement has two separate, but related, dimensions: “fairness” – who can access what benefits and when; and “volume” – how many migrants come to the UK every year. So far, David Cameron has been sticking to fairness, seeking to change the EU rules on both out of work benefits such as job-seekers allowance, and in-work benefits such as tax credits.

In my view, this is the right focus. EU free movement is a net benefit to the UK but also comes with challenges, in particular to certain sectors of society such as the low-paid. In order for it to stand in face of increasing pressure, governments need to be able to demonstrate to citizens that they have control over their welfare systems and that public policies to get people from welfare into work, such as tax credits, can be targeted at those who need them most. Bringing back such control will go a long way to address people’s concern about immigration. There is also support in other EU countries for these changes, and it wouldn't require EU Treaty change, so it’s achievable.

However, with Ukip breathing down his neck and a by-election nigh, Cameron is reportedly now thinking about going further, potentially curbing the volume of EU migrants.

This is very tricky territory. It is currently unclear what exactly – if anything – Cameron might ask for on volume ahead of that potential 2017 EU referendum, but he may have three broad options, which in order of increasing difficulty to secure EU agreement are:

  • An "emergency brake" triggering temporary controls on EU migration if the flow is considered "destabilising", too large and/or concentrated;
  • Permanent quotas on EU migrants;
  • A points-based system, similar to that which exists for migrants from outside the EU, differentiating between “skilled” and “low-skilled” migrants.

The first option may just be possible to negotiate in Europe, given that there are precedents for brakes in other areas in the EU treaties – for example on capital – and it could maybe be done by amending existing EU free movement rules rather than changing the treaties.

Securing either option 2 or 3 would be a very difficult task as it would involve fundamentally rewriting the EU treaties and unpicking a founding principle of EU, dating back to the 1950s. Even Switzerland, outside the EU but integrated in Europe via various bilateral deals including free movement, has limited room for manoeuvre since its attempts to impose quotas has been refused by the EU, which has threatened to suspend trade agreements with the country. A points-based system is a politically legitimate thing to argue for – but, first if made too restrictive a la Ukip, it'll actively hurt UK's interest. Secondly, I think it's tantamount to leaving the EU. As the Swiss experience shows, also life outside the EU involves trade-offs. And non-EU member Norway has actually transferred more control over its border to Europe than the UK.

There are plenty of plausible and necessary changes to EU free movement rules, but Cameron needs to think very carefully about his next move. An "emergency brake", for example, will take a lot of effort to negotiate, but it won’t shut down Farage – he can always move the goal posts, i.e. “this is not full control over our borders.” On this one, Downing Street simply won’t get away with creating the headline first, and the content later.

Mats Persson
Mats Persson is the director of Open Europe, an independent think-tank which calls for reform of the EU. He has written extensively on EU policy including on the eurozone crisis, financial regulation, the EU budget and employment law

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