Numerous reports in the media concerning the relationship between the UK and Europe suggest that 2014 will be an eventful year for UK immigration and our participation in the European Union (EU).
In December 2013, Theresa May, home secretary, was said to be working on a migration report showing what she called an ‘abuse of the free movement’ rules and proposing that limiting EU migration would be beneficial for Britain. The report was expected to be published on 21 February 2014, although this is now delayed until after the European elections in May 2014. Some (unnamed) Whitehall officials allegedly believe the report may never be published, suggesting that the report in fact demonstrates that the EU is actually good for the UK.
In recent months Germany and France, who have also experienced a high intake of EU migrants placing their welfare systems under stress, have supported the UK when tackling issues such as benefit fraud. The work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, in an interview with the Sunday Times in January 2014, said that ‘EU migrants should wait up to two years before being able to claim benefits rather than the current period of three months’. Other member states such as Italy and the Netherlands have also been supportive of this proposal.
Prime minister, David Cameron has recently stated he will renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership of the European Union and hold an ‘in/out’ referendum in 2017, if the Conservative party is elected in the 2015 general election. In the Telegraph on 18 January 2014, Mr Cameron was reportedly given a six-week deadline by rebel Tory MPs to publish a clear plan for clawing back power from Brussels. A detailed strategy for renegotiating Britain’s membership of the EU is expected to be issued by the government at the end of February 2014.
There is concern as to how the government anticipates being able to reduce centralised EU powers. One of the fundamental principles of the European Union is that people can move freely within it. Under Article I-4 of the Constitutional Treaty, free movement of persons within the Union is a guaranteed right, and any discrimination on the grounds of nationality is strictly prohibited. This doesn’t mean that change cannot take place or that the UK is alone in asking for change – Dutch and French officials also support introducing tougher EU-wide penalties for those who abuse the free movement rules, but not to the extent that such rights would be abrogated. Germany is said to be keen to assist Mr Cameron devise a new deal but will not tamper with EU founding principles. Indeed, Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans’ suggestions for EU reform include a proposed five year ‘European governance manifesto’ setting out those topics Europe would retain control of and those which would be devolved back to member states, with a view to reinforcing the position of domestic parliaments.
At the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr Cameron was positive about the UK’s role within the EU and of his intention (subject to the people he serves) for the UK to continue to play a key role in EU development. He praised the success of the EU and of the accession process, particularly as a powerful instrument in developing countries due to the criteria that require to be satisfied before a country is allowed to join. Although keen on increasing membership of the EU, he said that an immigration policy on its own is not effective, and needs to be combined with an education and welfare system which promotes the intrinsic value of paid work. He stated that freedom of movement as a right to move and work is not a right to move and claim benefits.
Referring to the 1.5 million people who relocated to the UK following the accession of eight countries in 2004, Mr Cameron said that he did not believe this high influx of people was considered in the intention of the EU founding members. It was this which led to the transitional rules being enforced on gaining access to the British labour market when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, which were lifted on 1 January 2014.
However, Mr Cameron encouraged EU reform – reflecting public disquiet concerning the way the EU works – saying innovation should be embraced, and over-regulation discouraged. In particular, he stated his focus would be on developing a strategy on the reform of the UK’s relationship with the EU, with the objective that the UK public vote to stay in the EU in the 2017 referendum.
A poll by think tank British Future found there is strong public support for adjusting the UK’s links with the rest of the EU. One in four (28%) of UK voters were found to want to leave the EU, while 38% wished to stay and try reducing EU powers.
With the desire for change coming from both domestic and European influences, the next few months is likely to yield further clarification of reform proposals and, importantly, of the UK’s position within the EU.
By Tracey Morgan, paralegal, Magrath LLP.