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With Cameron due to meet two of the EU’s Presidents today – the Commission’s Jean-Claude Juncker and the Parliament’s Martin Schulz – and a third on Sunday – the Council’s Donald Tusk – attention has turned back to the UK’s demands on migration and access to welfare and an ‘emergency brake’. So where do we stand?
29 January 2016
It is expected that a draft text outlining a potential UK-EU deal will be circulated early next week – however it is clear that there are still issues where there is some distance between the two sides, particularly with regard to migration and access to welfare. There appears to be three options under discussion:
Firstly, the ‘emergency brake’. The idea of an emergency brake has come back to the fore in recent days, with reports that EU officials have suggested an emergency brake that could be used to deny access to welfare for four years (on a temporary basis) if pressure on public services (social and welfare systems) is seen to be too high. It should be noted that this is different to an earlier idea of an emergency brake that could impose a cap on the numbers of people arriving or working.
It appears that this is a proposal being pushed forcefully by the European Commission rather than the UK and, despite David Cameron cautiously welcoming it as “encouraging” that the Commission are “coming forward with ideas” (what else could he really say having asked for proposals), he also said such proposals “are not yet strong enough”. It is also worth noting that, as Leave.EU have already pointed out, in 2014 Cameron described the emergency brake as an “arcane mechanism in the EU that would be triggered by the EU Commission and not by us”, so I think the Government recognises that it is far from ideal. As we’ve noted in the past, there are many questions about how such a brake with regard to migration would work in practice, chief of which are who decides on its use and when it would be triggered.
Any brake that requires the approval of the Commission or even other member states – which reportedly is the proposal under the current plan – is likely to be vulnerable to attacks from Leave campaigners that it would be inadequate. A break solely in the hands of the UK Government (with some EU power to appeal or police against its misuse) could be more attractive.
In addition, what is an ‘emergency’? Given that it is current pressures that have given rise to the public demand for action, any brake would need to be in play immediately and an ‘emergency’ declared right away.
Furthermore, it is not obvious why other member states would be particularly keen on this proposal. It would be open to all EU states and could create a running sore on free movement and benefits in a number of different states. Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski has already poured cold water on the plan saying, “[Poland] will not accept a mechanism that denies social benefits to Poles living in the European Union.”
It’s not clear whether by pushing this the Commission is trying to bounce the UK into the emergency brake or whether it is about expectations management. Either way, while we don’t have full details yet, it’s difficult to see this proposal playing particularly well with voters or the media if it is the centrepiece of the deal on migration.
The second idea is to tighten the definition of a worker under EU free movement rules. This was reportedly an idea tabled by Germany, which would establish that to be defined as a ‘worker’ you would need to be earning over a certain income threshold. This would mean EU workers earning below this threshold would be barred from claiming welfare. This would be another means of achieving the same ends as the four-year restriction on benefits, since it would effectively mean ensuring that EU workers’ incomes would not be topped up with welfare if their employment did not make them self-sufficient. The key to this though is what threshold is set and, reportedly, the UK found the threshold set by Germany to be too low to be acceptable.
This could be achieved by changing EU rules and regulations on free movement and as such may even be achievable via secondary legislation, though that is far from certain. It is also unclear whether this could also impact domestic workers. It is unlikely to fly if it does, but the assumption seems to be that they would only apply to migrant workers rather than domestic ones. This seems to be the UK’s favoured option at the moment, at least in terms of alternatives to its original proposal as it is a neat – and potentially less politicised – way of achieving the same ends.
Thirdly, a residency based eligibility test. This idea appears to be losing steam but has been suggested as a way of implementing a four-year restriction on benefits by applying residency criteria rather than nationality criteria. This could prove more acceptable to EU partners since it would not directly discriminate but indirectly discriminate.
At this stage, with such proximity to the February summit, it is difficult to know which reports to believe and all the options have legal hurdles to overcome. There is likely to be much misinformation but this only highlights that in this area – and potentially in some others – there remains much to do to get a deal in just two weeks’ time.
Russian roulette might, indeed, be a better term.
That the future direction of the UK in relation to Europe could be reduced to debate on such an issue beggars belief. The sorcerers apprentices that have taken it upon themselves to promote such a debate had better hope for a successful referendum outcome; if they can decide in their own minds what that is!
don’t recognise “if they can decide in their own minds what that is”. A successful referendum outcome for the ‘leave’
groups is that UK leaves the European Union. No ambiguity. If anything
a lack of clarity & direction is harming the ‘stay’ campaign because aside
from a very few fanatics, everyone would agree that the EU is in urgent need of
major reform. The weakness of the ‘stay’
campaign is marked by a widely differing view on how much reform is needed.
Cameron’s four point negotiation is window dressing, not major reform. Cameron
doesn’t want to leave the EU, yet he can see that the numbers of ‘out’ voters is
increasing.Compared with what Cameron
could have asked for, bearing in mind the strength of his hand, these four
points are very minor concessions. The EU
should be able to agree relatively easily. This then, is merely a stratagem, a device that Cameron hopes might just
do enough.This is not a serious attempt
at reform. All he is trying to do is sow
doubt in the minds of probably only a few hundred thousand voters; enough to
sway the referendum to a 51% ‘stay’ / 49% ’leave’.
whether the tenets being discussed are appropriate to making such a momentous
decision, yes I agree with you. The
country would have liked Cameron to thump the table at Brussels and say that UK
wants an opt out of freedom of movement and a reversion to a trade based, EEC
style model. Which of course, Brussels could
never agree to. To reduce the debate to
a spat about benefits is to cheapen it. The question Britain has about Cameron’s negotiations isn’t about their efficacy
or potency in making a difference; it is about integrity. Are they real or is all rather theatrical, having
been agreed months ago?
raised by OE a month ago, what animates many people in Britain is the concern
that our government has made no effort to plan for our post-Brexit
relationships with the EU and the world.
@David Horton I was referring to Open Europe. Is it for or against Brexit? Presumably against if an "adequate" agreement can be reached.
The "negotiations" as conducted up to this point are without precedent. There are set procedures for seeking reforms by way of amendment to the treaties. Cameron has studiously avoided them. (It was only last November that he set out by way of letter to the President of the European Council, and in general terms, what the demands of the UK were).
The failure to prepare, it would seem, any plan B in the event of an actual vote in favour of Brexit, is all of a piece with this idiosyncratic approach.
It only makes sense in the context of internal Conservative party politics.
These points are matters of fact, it would seem to me. Not opinion.
Sent to No 10,
You went to the EU asking for nothing. You are returning with less. Even you must now realise now, that the EU is not prepared to change direction or give up what it has appropriated from us.
Switch camps now and lead Britain out of the EU, or be consigned to history as just another weak Prime Minister.
An emergency brake could do the job only when it is to the discretion of the UK to determine when and if it should be applied. Job as meeting Cameron's reneg targets, which were/are pretty unambitious imho.
@OpenEurope Did we all come up the Clyde on a banana boat ? Does Cameron really think we are all zipped up the back ?
I think we need to consider the morality of this benefits proposal which is now being mooted, whereby under extreme circumstances the EU might allow the UK government to restrict in-work benefits for the citizens of other EU countries until they have paid in for a certain number of years.
Not whether the scheme would withstand legal challenge at the ECJ if it was not expressly enshrined in the treaties, needing a treaty change, nor whether it would be effective in reducing immigration, nor whether it would be effective in reducing the total welfare bill, given that other benefits would still be available, and nor whether it would be effective in dealing with the immediate excessive pressure on hospitals and schools and all other public services arising from mass immigration – it obviously fails to pass muster on all those counts – but whether it is actually fair to invite people to come and live and work in our country, but then subsequently mess about with their lives by withdrawing rights which they were assured they would have, simply because too many have responded to the government’s open invitation and that is creating problems.
I am opposed to mass immigration into my country, but I also believe that if you do invite somebody to come here then you should treat them decently. Not necessarily with perfect equality to the established citizens, but decently.
It is one thing to tell people beforehand that if they come to this country they will not be entitled to certain rights and benefits for so many years, or until they have become citizens, or whatever; it is quite another thing to tell them that they will have exactly the same benefits as the citizens from day one, but then later change your mind and suddenly withdraw certain rights or benefits from the migrants but not from the citizens.
For the same reason I do not think it will be reasonable and just to order all the citizens of other EU countries who are already established in the UK at the invitation of the UK government, including those who are now raising families here, to leave the UK once we have left the EU, and we should make it very clear that this will not happen.