Briefing Influence

  • Open Europe provided a comprehensive overview of the options David Cameron has at his disposal to limit the number of EU migrants coming to the UK, and assessed their chances of success in negotiations at the EU level.

16 October 2014

The debate about EU migration: ‘fairness’ vs ‘volume’

The debate about migration from other EU member states has two dimensions. They are inter-linked, but should still be treated separately. The first dimension is ‘fairness’ – who can access what benefits and when. The second dimension is ‘volume’ – how many migrants come to the UK every year.

There is substantial support across the EU to give national governments greater control over access to their welfare systems. This kind of reform would not require changing the EU treaties. A qualified majority vote among governments and the agreement of the European Parliament would be sufficient.

Conversely, any move to limit the number of EU migrants coming to the UK would most likely require treaty change (with the possible exception of an ‘emergency brake’) and therefore the unanimous agreement of other EU governments.

David Cameron’s options to limit the number of EU migrants coming to the UK: Are they negotiable?

It is currently unclear what exactly, if anything, David Cameron might ask for on volume, but he may have three broad options, which in order of increasing difficulty to secure EU agreement are:

1) An ‘emergency brake’ triggering temporary controls on EU migration if the flow is considered ‘destabilising’, too large and/or concentrated;
2) Permanent quotas on EU migrants;
3) A points-based system similar to the one in place for migrants from outside the EU, differentiating between ‘skilled’ and ‘low-skilled’ migrants.

There are a number of questions around how an ‘emergency brake’ could work in practice, but if this is David Cameron’s top EU negotiating priority he may just achieve it, given that there are precedents for brakes in other areas in the EU treaties and there is increasing awareness across the Continent that public concern about free movement is contributing to the EU’s unpopularity.

Whatever the merits of the proposal, as a domestic political strategy, it is unclear whether an ‘emergency brake’ would be enough to reassure UKIP voters. Cameron could still be accused of failing to secure full control over Britain’s borders and migration policy. In other words, he risks spending a lot of political capital in Brussels for limited returns at home.

Mats Persson, head of the Open Europe think tank, fears that [an emergency brake] mechanism would be ineffective and difficult to agree with other EU member states. He is urging Mr Cameron not to take that route.

The Financial Times, ‘Nick Clegg backs curbs on benefits for immigrants’ 25 November 2014

Securing either permanent quotas or a points-based system for EU migrants would be an extremely difficult task. It would involve fundamentally rewriting the EU treaties and unpicking one of the founding principles of EU membership. There will most certainly be little or no political appetite for such a move among other EU countries. Switzerland’s experience shows that, even outside the EU, measures to limit EU migration could result in threats from Brussels of reduced trade access to EU markets.

This is not to say that EU rules on free movement can ever be changed, but rather that this is one area where the UK Government will find it hard to get away with creating the headline first, and the content later. Given the domestic sensitivity of the issue and how deeply it strikes at the heart of existing terms of EU membership, successfully negotiating change requires a well thought out plan that has domestic and European level buy-in.