EU Free Movement Under Threat

01/11/2012 10:48 GMT | Updated 31/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Stewart Jackson's Ten Minute Rule motion to curb EU free movement rights passed the first hurdle on its way to becoming law. Let's hope no one in government seriously considers it as official policy.

Conservative MP Stewart Jackson continues his campaign against "barking mad" European Union law which supports the free movement of people across EU borders.

The motion put forward today in parliament states that EU citizens are to be allowed to enter and live in the UK only if they have a prior job offer, no criminal record, are in good health and remain barred from claiming social benefits. While Private Members' Bills usually don't get far in parliament, this should be seen as a bellwether for moods in government circles which are determined to place greater impediments in the way of exercising rights available to citizens under EU law.

The Home Office has also made it known to be making plans to move against migration from parts of the EU most severely affected by the eurozone crisis if conditions continue to worsen. There are also strong signs of a campaign to ramp up public anxiety about the prospect of increased migration from the two most recent countries to accede to the Union, Bulgaria and Romania, when the transitional measures permitted to limit their rights to take employment in other member states lapses at the end of 2013. The Daily Mail has seen fit to publish headlines suggesting that '30 million' might be surging across borders during the course of 2014 as they flee from poor economic prospects in their home countries.

Stewart Jackson has argued that existing EU law permits more "wriggle room" for governments to restrict free movement rights than has been acknowledged to date.

This seems improbable. There is now more than 40 years of binding law on the issue, based on EU directives and regulations and the case law at national and European Court level which have secured the unimpeachable fact that citizens of member states are entitled to live and work in all countries of the Union after the completion of accession procedures.

There are circumstances in which governments can deny these rights to individuals on grounds of 'public policy, public security and public health', but what is possible in the way of restrictions is defined in pretty precise terms of existing EU directive.

Unless a drastic revision of this law takes place with the agreement of the governments of all 27 member states, or the UK leaves the EU, the current regulations simply would not permit national authorities to limit free movement rights to the groups which the Home Office and Mr Jackson appear to have in mind.

Neither should they. An estimated eight million EU citizens live in member states other than that of their own nationality. Their movement across borders has followed the line of the development of the single market, which even the most die-hard Tory euro-sceptic is keen to stress they want to preserve beyond the date of a British withdrawal from the social and political aspects of the Union. UK citizens are amongst the biggest beneficiaries of free movement rights, with the Oxford University-based Migration Observatory recording 1.4 million Brits living in other member states.

One also has to wonder what would happen to the UK's immigration control system if they found that they had to uphold the type of tight regulation and control assumed by Stewart Jackson's bill. The business of checking that EU migrants have jobs to come to, were in good health, and had sufficient resources to avoid becoming a charge on public funds strongly suggests that a pre-entry visa system would have to be put in place to ensure that only people who met these conditions were let in.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 180,000 EU citizens came to the UK in the 12 months up to June 2011 in categories that qualified as long-term migrants. The imposition of visa checking duties on this group would add considerably to the 500,000 non-EU migrants (most of them international students) who currently arrive in the UK in a typical year and who require a visa. Has Mr Jackson and his supporters considered the huge increases that would be required in UK Border Agency staff, checking applications from EU nationals, issuing visas and, if refusing them, arranging for their appeals to be heard in the relevant courts?

What would be the situation as UK ports of entry, where anyone holding an EU passport is now waved through on the basis of a perfunctory check? Around 40% of the 70 million people travelling through Heathrow alone each year come from another EU country. The task of distinguishing between mere visitors and those coming to work would be an onerous burden on an airport which is already struggling to operate with reasonable efficiency.

The abrupt re-imposition of immigration controls on EU nationals in the way envisioned in Mr Jackson's bill seems to be a terribly harsh cure for whatever illnesses are believed to arise from the current exercise of free movement rights. This is, as former Europe minister Denis Macshane put it, an attempt by some MPs to break apart the UK's relationship with the EU.

Fortunately, this is not an official government bill and it may flounder as most Private Members Bills do at its Second Reading (due to be held on the 14th December). However, we have to hope that other more influential figures in the government and opposition are not seduced to take it up as an official line.