UK calls for overhaul of EU rules on migrants

Home secretary proposes immigration cap and change to law on free movement

Britain brought its campaign against so-called “benefits tourism” to Brussels yesterday, calling for a radical overhaul of European rules on migration and free movement of citizens.

At a meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers, British home secretary Theresa May proposed a number of changes to EU laws on free movement, including allowing host countries to cap immigration numbers, and requiring poorer countries to reach a minimum level of economic activity before their citizens could move to other member states.

But EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding insisted that stringent rules on migrants' access to benefits were already in place, and that it was up to national governments to implement them. "EU rules are clear. Member states are free to decide which benefits they want to set up, under which conditions they are going to pay these, to whom and for how long," Ms Reding said. "It seems some national systems are too generous."

'Benefits tourism'
Britain has argued that a large proportion of its migrants are engaged in "benefits tourism", that is moving to another country to receive social benefits rather than working. The European Commission believes this claim is unsubstantiated, and has called on Britain to provide evidence of the practice.

Under European Union law, member states are not obliged to grant social assistance to “non-active” EU citizens during the first three months of residence. The commission has also stressed that, after this initial three-month period, there are a number of safeguards in place to ensure member states can terminate the right to residence of citizens who are “deemed to have become an unreasonable burden” on the social system.

“EU rules do not ask member states to grant benefits unconditionally to everyone. This is the member states’ choice,” Ms Reding said.

With work restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens due to expire in less than a month, Britain has been leading calls for a reform of the free movement system, with prime minister David Cameron vowing to cut social benefits to migrants during the first three months of residence, and stop payments after six months unless the claimant had a "genuine" chance of getting work.

During Ireland's presidency of the council of the EU, Britain, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands wrote to the council highlighting concerns about the abuse of free movement rights. The Irish presidency asked the commission to review the issue. That report, which was discussed at yesterday's meeting, found no evidence of widespread abuse of the system.

Ireland was one of the countries to take a strong position at hte meeting, with Minister for Justice Alan Shatter highlighting the positive financial contribution EU migrants had made to the Irish economy, such as tax contributions. He alsowarned against the use of "inflammatory language" on the issue.

Mr Cameron has pledged to put the issue of migration at the heart of his planned "renegotiation" of Britain's relationship with the EU. Last week, EU commissioner Laszlo Andor said Mr Cameron's recent comments risked portraying Britain as a "nasty" country. This prompted Mr Cameron to complain to the president of the European Commission.

Likely to be employed
The European Commission report found that migrants to European member states are more likely than nationals to be employed, despite Britain's claim of widespread misuse of the benefits system.

Separately yesterday, European Commission vice-president Joaquin Almunia expressed concern about the rise of “xenophobic voices” and “non-democratic political forces” in the EU. Speaking in Dublin, the competition commissioner said next year’s EU elections offered both an opportunity and a risk. “This is because of the existence of populist [movements], of some xenophobic voices in some countries and even of some non-democratic forces that want to have a seat in the EU parliament.”

“This creates a big challenge for those who believe in Europe and in the need to push for integration.”

Mr Almunia said European values “need to give orientation and guidance to our societies to overcome economic difficulties and to solve social problems created by the [financial] crisis”.