It is easy to understand David Cameron’s desire to make a ‘game changing’ speech on EU immigration. Voters are telling pollsters it is the issue that most concerns them, Ukip are breathing down his neck and it could be the swing issue in any future EU referendum.
However, he needs to play his cards carefully. By making a ‘big pledge’ on reducing numbers, the risk is that Mr Cameron needlessly raises expectations that are undeliverable and draws attention away from negotiable reforms to EU migrants’ access to the British welfare system that would concretely address the inconsistencies and perverse incentives undermining public confidence in free movement. These reforms would be far from simply symbolic, they would greatly increase the Government’s ability to target its welfare and employment policies at British citizens and reduce EU citizens’ incentive to migrate to the UK for low-income jobs.
The Government has already taken some steps to tighten domestic rules on EU migrants’ access to out of work benefits but a big problem lies with EU law, which severely limits what national governments are able to do, not only to restrict EU migrants’ access but to help their own citizens’ path into work.
Successive Governments have pursued welfare policies and subsidies, such as in-work tax credits, designed to counter benefit traps and create job opportunities so it will always ‘pay to work’. But, under EU law, these in-work benefits (unlike out of work benefits) must be immediately available to all EU citizens. Furthermore, the threshold for accessing these benefits is extremely relaxed, with work of twelve hours a week sufficient to qualify somebody. In-work benefits therefore no longer just promote local employment but also subsidise low-income migration from other parts of the EU.
This strikes to the very heart of the social contract between a national government and its citizens. National welfare systems should be a matter for national parliaments decided by national elections. The evidence suggests the British public has a strong sense of this social contract but are open to sharing the benefits of their society once EU migrants have made an economic contribution. In October 2013, a Survation poll found that 57 per cent of people favoured restricting migrants’ access to the NHS until they had worked in the UK for at least two years. In contrast, only 19 per cent said that migrants should have access only if they pay, regardless of how long they have been here.
The UK would have allies in seeking fundamental reform. The best route would be a new EU ‘Directive on Citizenship and Integration’, which would not require changes to the EU treaties. It would state the pre-eminence of national citizenship by reiterating that welfare benefits are as central to it as the right to vote in national elections. It would set out a new test for EU migrants’ integration in their new host society. All EU migrants would only be entitled to benefits, social housing and publicly funded apprenticeships once they had lawfully resided in their new country for three years. There would have to be limited exceptions to this three year rule. The children of EU citizens should have the right to public education prior to that and EU citizens should also have a right to access public healthcare. But with the latter, there is no reason why the costs should not be borne by their state of nationality.
This would create a much more suitable balance between the rights afforded by national citizenship and EU citizenship by reasserting the value and importance of national citizenship, on the one hand, whilst setting out EU citizenship as the right to seek employment opportunities across Europe and to have the full benefits of a society when one has integrated into it, on the other.
Damian Chalmers is Professor of European Union Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Stephen Booth is Research Director of Open Europe. They are co-authors of the new Open Europe pamphlet ‘A European labour market with national welfare systems: a proposal for a new Citizenship and Integration Directive’.