European officials are confident they have averted a damaging clash among EU leaders over migration at a summit this week, but public fears of an influx into western and southern Europe will loom large over European elections next year.
By agreeing to tougher rules on the temporary posting of workers from poorer countries in central and eastern Europe to wealthier western areas, EU labour ministers last week defused an explosive debate fuelling anti-European populist parties.
Britain, which opposed the tighter regulations as a burden on business, plans to unilaterally limit access to welfare for nationals of poor EU states Romania and Bulgaria when curbs on their freedom of movement end on January 1. But Prime Minister David Cameron, whose coalition government is divided over labour migration, will not formally raise that issue or more radical ideas at the summit on Thursday and Friday, a senior British official said.
European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly told reporters: “We could have had a confused, very politicised, polemical debate ... with a very clear east-west divide in Europe. The agreement on posted workers means France and its allies like Belgium won’t raise this matter at the summit. So if anyone raises the issue, it will only be Cameron on his own specific angle.”
A government report leaked to the media suggested Cameron’s Conservatives aim to cap the number of EU migrants, bar them from receiving welfare benefits for the first five years and stop even highly skilled Europeans moving to Britain without a firm job offer. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat junior coalition party, said such policies were
“illegal and undeliverable”.
Home secretary (interior minister) Theresa May told lawmakers that such longer-term ideas would figure in a planned renegotiation of EU membership terms which Cameron has promised if he wins a general election in 2015, but were not for now.
The right-wing UK Independence Party, which advocates Britain’s withdrawal from the 28-nation bloc, has warned that the country faces hordes of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants.
British media have railed against alleged “benefit tourism” despite studies showing EU migrants contribute much more to the welfare state than they receive and are less likely to claim benefits than native Britons.
Top-selling tabloid The Sun urged Cameron on Wednesday to “draw a red line on immigration” at the EU summit, warning that the country would otherwise vote to leave the bloc in a referendum promised by Cameron before the end