UK and France are taking steps, seen as undermining the core EU principle of the free movement of people. Why would the two leading EU members resort to this kind of measures? And are other EU members likely to follow? Radio VR is discussing it with Professor Steve Peers of the University of Essex, UK, Professor Reto Foellmi, Professor of International Economics, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, and Yves Pascouau, head of the European Migration and Diversityprogramme at the European Policy Centre (EPC).
According to BBC report, Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to set out plans to curb the rights of EU migrants to work in the UK. As of now several options are on the table, but no decision has been taken yet. However, the president of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso suggested an "arbitrary cap" on migrants would not be accepted.
Mr. Barroso’s statement has been followed by the news from Paris saying the French parliament is considering two bills on immigration and terrorism that would allow France to refuse to admit undesirable citizens of other EU countries. The initiative has been already criticized by The Paris-based NGO — Immigrants’ Information and Support Group, saying new legislation could be used to restrict the number of migrants entering France “under cover of protecting the country from terrorism”.
So, how justified are those concerns?
Professor Steve Peers: As a starting point, the EU will say that anyone from an EU country, who wants to move to another EU country, can usually just do that, and they can stay for as long as they like. There are some limits though, if you start asking for a public welfare straight away or if you commit a crime in a new country, or if you have a prior criminal conviction, or if there is some evidence that you might be a terrorist – these are all reasons to deny someone entry or to expel him from a country.
If this regulation is in place, why would France, or the UK, feel they need additional protection measures?
Professor Steve Peers: There are big differences between what France is planning to do and what the UK Government or a part of it is planning to do. What France is planning to do, is to pass a new law which simply says that we can deny entry to people, who are a public order risk on a case by case basis. Now, the wording of that law is perfectly consistent with the EU law. That’s what the EU law allows each country to do. Everyone is always able to do that. So, a new law – that is no problem.
I think the problem with France would be that when they come to apply it in practice, are they going to try and deny entry to people just because they might claim a benefit or because they think they might be terrorists? Well, you have to have some kind of concrete evidence. You can’t just decide that someone is a Roma person, so we don’t him, because he’ll claim benefits; or a Muslim person, because he might be a terrorist. You have to have something very concrete besides a general suspicion. So, the problem will come for France in practice.
For Britain, it is the Conservative Party, which is only part of the Government. So, it is not a Government’s proposal yet. We have an election next year. So, if the Conservative Party wins, what they want to do, is to have some kind of restriction on a total number of people coming from the EU and the details aren’t clear yet. But, probably, they can’t do what they want to do without going back and changing the whole treaty which makes up the EU.
Does the security problem get worse with the huge rise in the number of immigrants to the EU and the increase of EU population as a result of EU expansion?
Professor Steve Peers: There are different types of security. Obviously, there is sort of physical security and the risk that some people might blow up buildings and kill people, because they are terrorists or organized criminals, or, perhaps, because they’ve done it abroad in places like Syria. It is hard to know exactly how many people are in that category, although there probably are more foreign fighters in the last few years, because of the conflicts in places like Syria and Libya. And a lot more of them seem to be the EU citizens, than, maybe, it used to be the case.
But in some cases that’s a country’s own citizen. You know, it will be French citizens from France and British citizens from Britain who go and fight there, and come back. So, that’s not so much an immigration problem, it is purely a criminal law and intelligence problem.
And there is a broader sense of security risks. This is a more controversial idea of security, that a sheer number of people might be a threat and not everyone agrees to that. I mean, some people think it is a great economic benefit to have lots of immigrants. Obviously, some people are very unhappy on economic or social grounds. So, that is more controversial.
And this is the sort of limitations, which the British Conservative Party wants to bring in. But because the EU law allows for the EU citizens to move around freely, that is the problem that they are going to run into, having to renegotiate that and either leave the EU, or to lead every other country to change the rules. So, it is not going to be easy to do that.
Do you see any kind of solution? What would be your advice to your government?
Professor Steve Peers: I think the best way forward is to try and agree some moderate reforms to the EU rules. So, what we could do, without having to rewrite everything from scratch, is to ask people to wait longer, before they get social benefits – in three months or six months, or maybe raise up to a year or something, so that we can be sure that everyone who does come to the country is bringing an economic benefit. I mean, on the whole, most of them do, but we need to ensure that even more of them do and that it is less of a cost to the people who are already here in terms of paying their benefits. So, that will be a good idea.
Perhaps, there could also be stricter rules on how you deal with people who are convicted criminals or who are security risks. So, a better exchange of criminal records and things like that could be put into place. And perhaps, I think, if it is really necessary, then you could have special new rules that would apply, when there is a huge surge of immigration from other countries, because that’s difficult to manage. You do have to find schools and hospitals for people in a short period of time. So, you’d have to find out a way to say how much a huge surge is? Is that 10%, 20% increase? So, agree on something like that, that would be useful.
I think, politically, it is very difficult to go much further than that. Probably, in economic and social terms, I don’t think it is a good idea. It is a big benefit on the whole to allow people from the EU member states. Most of them aren’t criminals, most of them get jobs. So, on the whole it is a benefit to allow them to move freely, in my opinion. But there are lots of people in Britain who don’t share that point of view”
Professor Reto Foellmi: The free migration of persons only applies to those looking for a job. So, if you have a new labour contract, then you can settle in another European country. And it applies, by the way, to Switzerland as well, because Switzerland has a treaty with the EU in that regard.
So, France wants to defend themselves, it is only about criminals and not about hindering the free movement of persons accepting labour contracts. But their aim is obvious, of course. They want to limit the free flow of persons, to put barriers to immigration or the free flow of persons, which is, of course, quite astonishing given France is a country in the center of Europe. Britain is an island but France is in the heart of Europe. So, I think Europe will now face a discussion about the principles of the free movement of persons more and more, due to the British experience and given this new French initiative now.
Do you think that the legislation is going to be adopted?
Professor Reto Foellmi: It is difficult to say, but I don’t think it will be adopted or, particularly, implemented in the way it is explained now. As we say in German – the soup is indeed a mess as it is cooked. So, there will be further discussions with the EU. And then, the EU will say – no, that is not compatible with the free movement of persons’ principle. Then, of course, Hollande or the Prime Minster Manuel Valls can say – well, we wanted to curb immigration, but the EU didn’t let to do it. So, they have an excuse for the interior politics, that they didn’t get through with their aim.
So far I envisage it more as a political game within France, than the real threat. But this threat could turn real next year when, say, the Le Pen’s party gains much more votes in the election in France.
But do you think the French case could set some kind of a precedent for the rest of Europe?
Professor Reto Foellmi: I think it depends on whether they get through with their proposal. If they don’t, I don’t think there will be any precedent. But if they get through or get some modifications, that they now have the unilateral right to impose some restrictions, certainly other countries will follow as well.
How does Switzerland solve this kind of problem?
Professor Reto Foellmi: In Switzerland, we have the interior discussion on that, because there was a referendum aiming at restricting the free movement of persons, because there was such a huge immigration. But the discussion in Switzerland is never about the security, it is about the too fast growth of the whole economy. That is a huge issue, I think, but this cannot be a real reason, because, at the end of the day, most of the people migrate through the airports and the security issue is not a problem, because you can simply control people there. So, I think they give this as a reason, but the true reason, of course, is the overall immigration that France is concerned about”.
Yves Pascouau, Head of the European Migration and Diversity programme at the European Policy Centre (EPC):
First of all, I would recall that we are not talking about immigration in the present case. We are talking about the freedom of movement of people. And we have to be clear that there is a difference at the EU level and in the EU law between the freedom of movement of the EU citizens and the immigration rules which target the third-country nationals.
I'm saying this, because in the last couple of months there is a tendency from some politicians to use the word immigration for the freedom of movement. And I think this is something which should not mislead people. When we are talking about immigration at the EU level – we are talking about the third-country nationals. And when we are talking about the freedom of movement – we are talking about the EU citizens able to move and reside in all the member states. That’s the first point.
The second point, which makes a big difference between what has been proposed by the UK and France, is that what the UK has proposed is not compatible with the EU law, whereas it is compatible in the French case. Let me explain myself very quickly.
First of all, it is not possible under the EU law to decide on a cap for the freedom of movement of people. It is the right that is awarded to the EU citizens under the treaty. And the EU citizens, and it might be ten hundreds, a thousand and ten thousand, whatever the number is, are able to move and reside in another member state. So, capping this number is not allowed under the EU law.
However, what is allowed, is to limit the possibility for the EU citizens to enter and reside, if they do not fulfill some conditions. And among the conditions, which are listed by the EU rules, are not only the fact that people need to have sufficient resources and also be affiliated to the social security system, but also that they do not have to be a threat to the public policy.
And what has been included into the French law is this reference to a threat of public policy, which means that what has been decided in the UK is not compatible with the EU rules and what has been decided in France is compatible with the EU rules. So far it is framed in the way the jurisprudence interprets it.
But why did the law makers come up with this kind of initiative at this particular moment?
Yves Pascouau: I think that the timing is quite different in both cases. The timing in the UK, I think this is not a proper timing. And I think this is a long discussion which has been started months and months ago in the UK with the social tourism concept, which has been clearly considered as a false one on the basis of several major scientific researches. So, this is the follow-up of this social tourism idea, which is coming up now with the idea from Cameron to limit the number of the EU citizens being able to come to the UK to get a job or to reside over there.
In the French case it is part of a process, which has taken place a few months ago where the idea was to change the asylum and migration rules, because the current Government is not of the same political colour, as the previous one. And so they’ve been reflecting for months on a new law regarding immigration. And it happens that at the same time all the questions related to the foreign fighters are also coming up in the news.
So, they are dealing with the issue of immigration and also there is a law, which is related to the fight against terrorism within which they have included that provision, that now enables the French authorities to deny the right to reside to some EU citizens for the reasons that they may be part of a terrorist organization.
I think that we will now have to clearly scrutinize the content of the provision of the French law, to check whether it is fully compatible with the EU rules in term of how does the French law frame the concept of being a threat to the public policy, because the conditions which are put forward by the Court of Justice are quite clear and quite restrictive.
Do you think that, perhaps, the EU authorities could also come up with a certain revision of the current legislation on the free movement?
Yves Pascouau: Well, this has been for a long time now a wish from some member states to convince the European Commission to come up with a new proposal, in order to revise the rules on the freedom of movement of the EU citizens. I think that we are not there yet. I think that Mr. Cameron is a little bit isolated in this regard, because he is the only one willing to clearly limit the freedom of movement of the EU citizens.
And what is interesting in this regard, is that with this willingness to revise the rules on the free movement he lost most of his eastern support. We all remember that there was kind of a dispute and quarrel between Poland and the UK regarding the movement of the EU citizens, and more particularly the fact that some UK politicians wanted to limit the movement of the eastern EU citizens.
So, I think that for the time being there is no big political consensus to go for a change of the EU rule on the freedom of movement”.