Clash over EU migrants and benefits

UK Prime Minister David Cameron watches security monitors as he talks to UK border agency officials in their control room during a visit to Heathrow terminal 5 (October 2011) David Cameron says 'things have gone badly wrong'

In wanting to restrict the movement and entitlements of migrants UK Prime Minister David Cameron is challenging one of the core principles of the EU - the free movement of people across EU borders.

One commissioner says the moves risk depicting the UK "as the nasty country in the EU".

In part this is a clash between principles and practice.

The EU Commission says that the freedom to move and work in any part of the EU is one of the European project's greatest achievements.

Officials firmly believe that migrants are mainly young and active and pay more in tax than they receive in benefits. They argue that the rules that prevent discrimination against migrants from different EU member states are an integral part of the single market which the UK firmly backs.

"If we start to dismantle some of the rules of the single market... it ends up as a slippery slope," Commissioner Lazslo Andor told the BBC's Today programme.

Laszlo Andor: There are "existing EU safeguards" against benefit tourism

Mr Cameron, writing in the Financial Times, says "things have gone badly wrong". He says that since 2004 the UK has "witnessed the biggest migration in Europe outside wartime".

Now, politically, he is under enormous pressure because restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians working in the UK or anywhere else in the EU will be lifted at the start of January.

The prime minister has two targets; one is the threat of new arrivals in the months ahead, and secondly the longer term when and if the EU expands.

In the short-term he says he will change the rules; migrants will not be able to claim out-of-work benefits for the first three months.

After that they will only be able to claim for a maximum of six months unless they can prove they have a genuine prospect of employment. New arrivals will not be able to claim housing benefit.

Mr Cameron says "all of this we can legally do within the limits of the treaties".

Legal tussle

There is much that is unclear however. Will there be new legislation? Will EU officials challenge these changes?

Certainly they will scrutinise any legislation to see whether new criteria for benefits is compatible with EU rules and whether it discriminates against non-British EU workers.

Already the UK and the EU are in a legal tussle over benefits.

Graphic: Eastern European workers in the UK

The prime minister has also promised to remove those who are begging or sleeping rough. Again it is unclear whether this would involve new legislation. Already - and controversially - the French regularly remove and expel Roma from France.

Then there is the long-term.

Mr Cameron wants to qualify the right to freely move and work. He is talking of withholding that right to new countries until their national income has reached a certain level.

This is, at the moment, just an idea but it will be hugely controversial. One of the attractions for countries in Eastern Europe and beyond is their citizens' ability to move within the EU's 28 countries to find work.

But there are concerns in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and elsewhere about so-called benefits tourism.

The UK intends to place this at the centre of its demands to reform the EU.

Undoubtedly there will be a debate but Brussels will fight it hard, to defend a core principle that EU nationals can travel and work freely anywhere in the EU.

Gavin Hewitt Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

Greek elections: Europe waits on voters' verdict

The BBC's Europe editor Gavin Hewitt says Greek voters will not just be choosing a new government but delivering a verdict on Europe.

Read full article

More on This Story

Global Economy

Features & Analysis

  • Baby in boxStrange case

    The remarkable appeal of the Finnish baby boxes

  • WW1 gas mask being demonstratedTrench terror

    Did the soldiers of WW1 have an irrational fear of poison gas?

  • Mitt Romney, speaks at the podium as he concedes the presidency during Mitt Romney's campaign election night event at the Boston Convention 7 November 2012Aura of a loser?

    Mitt Romney looked presidential but could never pull it off

  • A woman holds up a feminist sign.PC virus

    Is liberal speech policing out of control?

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • ReadingBest books

    BBC Culture takes a look at ten books you should read in February


  • A car being driven by Cruise Automation technologyClick Watch

    The tech which could allow any car with an automatic gearbox to become self-driving

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.