By Don Flynn
The crisis on the centre-right of UK politics, provoked by the rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, ratcheted up another notch last week. David Cameron pledged to have ‘one last go’ at limiting the right of citizens to free movement within the EU.
Mr Cameron made the promise during a visit to Kent, where local politics is gearing itself for a by-election in the Rochester and Strood constituency next month. The contest was triggered by the defection of Tory MP Mark Reckless to UKIP at the beginning of October.
The exact demand the prime minister is putting together on EU migration is not yet known, though there has been speculation that it might comprise a new numerical limit affecting the numbers of EU nationals allowed to stay and work in the UK. According to the Sunday Times, Cameron is planning to achieve this by withholding the issue of national insurance numbers to EU immigrants with low skills.This turn of events seems to have excited hard-line Eurosceptics in all parties. One prominent politician, who happens to be the coalition Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, interpreted the PM’s words as ‘lighting a fire’ under the EU. UKIP leader Nigel Farage declared the promise to bring down migration to be ‘vacuous’, arguing that this could never be done whilst the UK remains a part of the EU.
Mr Cameron faces a real problem here. He now needs to curtail the insurgency on the right wing of his party, whilst coming up with a more realistic list of demands for EU reform.
Jose Manuel Barroso
In the past the outgoing president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, has enjoyed a degree of support amongst prominent European leaders and officials for some reform of free movement rules. Back in May 2011, he was prepared to consider a power to allow EU free movement to be temporarily suspended in emergencies. However, his willingness to consider changes of this sort seems to have sapped away in recent months.
During his current visit to the UK, Barroso has signalled his frustration with the direction of travel within the Conservative party. In the past considered a strong anglophile, Barroso has made it clear that limiting the rights of EU nationals to seek work in the UK would directly contravene basic EU laws.
Speaking on the BBC Andrew Marr Show on Sunday Barroso said, “I cannot comment on specific suggestions that have not yet been presented. What I can tell you is that any kind of arbitrary cap seems to be not in conformity with Europeans laws. For us it is very important – the principle of non-discrimination.”
Already there are signs that Mr Cameron’s plans have been thrown into disarray by Barroso’s comments. The Conservative party had previously indicated that we could expect a major speech by the PM before Christmas, which would lay out his proposed EU migration reforms. However, the party is now briefing that this may not take place and that Cameron’s pitch to EU government for reforms could be kept under wraps for the time being.
Case for migration
Political games of this sort will have consequences for migrant communities across the UK. Though it seems clear that freedom of movement is continuing to aid a tentative and fragile recovery from the recession without hampering the employment prospects of native workers, the government has still not worked out how to translate this into a ‘feel good’ factor for voters about EU migration.
Whilst the Conservative party leadership’s proposals remain unclear, we can expect Eurosceptic camps across the parties will continue to ramp up their anti-immigration rhetoric in the run-up to the next election. But beyond the centre right, no other significant players within mainstream politics seem to be making the case for EU free movement rights.
There are plenty of arguments to be made here. Both economic pragmatism and political principle suggest that migration from the EU is beneficial and ought to command the support of at least a significant proportion of voters.
The best that can be hoped for from the current situation is that it might finally provoke a reaction from those who support EU free movement. We are long overdue hearing from politicians across all the parties who have properly examined the facts on immigration and who know that it plays a critically role in the UK. Will they at last come up with a principled defence of the right of people coming to the country to work and contribute?
If so, we expect they will offer up messages that will quickly be taken up and amplified by organisations, interest groups and individual citizens who know that immigration is an essential component of life in the modern world – these perspectives could yet win the day when it comes to voting in the general election in May 2015.