Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

EU renegotiation: Limiting freedom of movement and benefit claims

By Richard Corbett MEP

What does the government claim it wants to do?

European Union freedom of movement, enshrined in the EU treaties, was not on David Cameron’s initial list of demands, but later became a key issue.

What does this really mean?

In Cameron’s Chatham House speech, he confirmed that reciprocal free movement itself is not his target, since there are about as many Britons in other EU countries as there are other Europeans in Britain.

On the refugee crisis, which this risks being conflated with, as refugees are not EU citizens, they have no right under EU law to enter or circulate within the EU – it is the UN convention (that all EU countries have signed) that requires asylum seekers to be treated properly and admitted whenever warranted. Such decisions are taken by national authorities. But faced with a common challenge, it makes sense to work together, rather than each country trying to pass the buck onto its neighbour. If we were not in the EU, the refugees coming from Syria and elsewhere would not go away. But, as far as the UK is concerned, our frontier controls would be moved back from Calais to Dover.

The most difficult part of Cameron’s stated aims will be modifying freedom of movement rules to restrict in-work benefits. EU citizens pay one-third more in taxes than they take out in benefits and services together – and EU law already requires them to be coming for a job or able to support themselves financially – so this issue is one of political perception, not economics. If we were to restrict access to welfare support for people in work, this would lead to situations where two colleagues, doing identical jobs, would be paid different amounts depending on which EU country they were from – which appears to be an obvious case of discrimination by nationality, illegal under the EU treaties.

What would achieving this mean for the UK?

Removing in-work benefits for EU citizens would require a change to legislation, or else the UK to be granted an exemption from that legislation, either of which would require approval of a large majority of national governments as well as members of the European parliament.

Even if legislation were changed, whatever was put in place would have to be compatible with the treaty principle of non-discrimination by nationality. For instance, if Cameron wanted to introduce a qualifying period before benefits can be claimed, this would need to apply to UK citizens as well.

What would achieving this mean for the EU?

If Cameron wanted to change the basic principle of non-discrimination in the treaty, this would require unanimous agreement by every government and ratification by every national parliament or referendum. This would take years and has already been ruled out by several countries.

What should Labour do about it?

Labour should push Cameron to make demands that really matter and that can be achieved, in both the British interest and the European interest, not tailor his demands to the rightwing of the Conservative party.

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Richard Corbett MEP is deputy leader of the European parliamentary Labour party. He tweets @RCorbettMEP

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Check out all the other analysis of Cameron’s renegotiation

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