EU citizens can move freely from country to country and seek work wherever they want. For British Prime Minister Cameron this is going too far. But changes to the EU treaties would be extremely difficult.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has added fresh spice to the ongoing debate about the migration of workers within the EU - a debate that is taking place primarily in Britain and Germany. Cameron wants to set an immigration quota for his country in order to limit the number of people moving there from other EU member states.
The British Home Office would like to set the quota at 75,000 people a year, but, as Cameron told the British broadcaster BBC, it would only apply to countries that acceded to the EU in future. He emphasized that the quota would not apply to people from Romania and Bulgaria, who as of January 1 are able to live and work anywhere in the EU. In more general terms, he said his government wanted to renegotiate immigration policy with the EU to find out: "Can we have tougher measures on migration than we currently can? "
Ratification by all
The EU Commission in Brussels reacted cautiously. The EU Commission spokesperson, Jonathan Todd, said they would first have to wait and see what exactly Cameron had in mind. "The freedom of movement of workers is a fundamental principle of the European Union, and has been since its foundation in the late 50s" he said. "It's also a fundamental element of the European single market."
Any limitation of people's freedom to choose where they live and work within the EU, he added, would require a renegotiation of the fundamental treaties, which would have to be ratified by all the member states.
Nonetheless, Cameron said he was optimistic that he would be able to push for stricter legislation to be applied to the next country to accede to the union.
No need for new legislation
The EU Commission referred once again to its own study, published in October, which argued that countries such as Britain and Germany had benefited economically from immigration after the EU expansion of 2004, and that there was no evidence that it had unduly overburdened their welfare systems.
Cameron doesn't agree. He wants to restrict immigrants' access to child support and to Britain's free National Health Service. The British prime minister told the BBC that immigration putting to great a strain on British society. "We saw net migration, for the decade under Labour, of 2.3 million people," he said. "That's two cities the size of Birmingham. The scale was too big; the pace was too fast."
The EU Commission in Brussels does not deny that there can be local or regional problems as a result of too many impoverished immigrants arriving from other EU states. Some German cities, such as Duisburg, Dortmund and Berlin, have already complained that they are overburdened. EU Commission spokesperson Jonathan Todd called for member states to deal with these problems individually, as and when they occur. "The point that we are making is: these issues need to be addressed, rather than limits imposed on the free movement of people," he said.
Todd sees no need for the regulations to be changed: "The rules are established in the directive on the free movement of people from 2004, which confirms that the member states have the possibility of excluding the citizens of another member state after 3 months if they do not have work or financial means of subsistence - which will prevent them being a burden on the receiving country."
The EU Commission also responded to the demands by the CSU, the conservative Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, that immigrants should be refused reentry if they are found to have abused the welfare system, by issuing a statement saying that such regulations were already in place.
Germanya special case
Some member states, like Germany, grant immigrants voluntary welfare payments such as child support - although they are not required by European law. Several courts have also ruled EU immigrants should get the so-called Hartz IV minimal welfare support. A senior German court has asked the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to decide whether this is in compliance with EU law.
The CSU's position, summarized by the slogan, "Whoever cheats will be kicked out," has also met with criticism from the party's coalition partners, the Social Democrats. Deputy chairman Ralf Stegner described it as amounting to hate speech. On Wednesday the government in Berlin wants to set up a working group to inquire whether abuse of the welfare system by EU immigrants takes place and, if so, how to respond to it.
According to the EU commission there's no evidence that there's been an increase in immigration from Bulgaria or Romania to other EU member states since January 1. Asked to provide concrete statistics, Britain's David Cameron told the BBC that he wouldn't want to give any estimates on how many would come. But he failed to explain how he could assess the problem without any statistics.