David Cameron has suffered a blow to his EU reform plans after the outgoing president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, said an arbitrary cap on free movement within the EU would be incompatible with European law.
In a sign of the deep frustration with the Tories in Brussels, Barroso also dismissed the claim by the UK’s foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, that the party was “lighting a fire” under the EU by pledging to hold an in/out referendum by 2017.
“I think this reference to fires and weapons is more appropriate for defence than foreign secretary,” Barroso told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, in a reference to Hammond’s previous job as defence secretary. “I think it is very important to have a positive tone between Britain and the EU.”
Barroso was speaking after the Sunday Times reported that Cameron was planning to cut EU migration by imposing a cap on the number of national insurance numbers issued to EU immigrants with low skills. National insurance numbers could be issued for a limited period to ensure the prime minister delivers on his pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.
Barroso, who pointed out that Cameron had invoked EU free movement rules when he complained about Spanish restrictions on Gibraltar, said his plan would be incompatible with EU law. The European commission president said: “In principle arbitrary caps seem to me in contradiction with EU laws. That is quite clear from my point of view.”
He added: “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.
“The freedom of movement is a very important principle in the internal market: movement of goods, of capital, of services and of people. By the way, I remember when prime minister Cameron called me to ask the commission to be tough ensuring the freedom of movement between Gibraltar and Spain. The British citizens have freedom of movement all over Europe. There are 700,000 living in Spain. So the principle of the freedom of movement is essential, we have to keep it.”
Barroso, who will stand down as commission president next month after 10 years, said he expected EU leaders to be open to some of the reforms proposed by Cameron, including addressing the abuse of benefits systems. He expressed “full support to all ways of suppressing abuse of benefits because they are against the spirit of our legislation”.
The prime minister plans to outline a hardening of his EU renegotiations plans in the next month. Cameron, who has already revealed plans to crack down on EU benefit tourism, wants to go further, imposing restrictions on the movement of people from current EU member states. This would require a revision of the treaty of Rome, the founding document of the EEC, which guarantees free movement of people.
Downing Street is seeking to respond to the threat from the right from Ukip. But Cameron also wants to show Tory Eurosceptics he is serious about reform. They have said in recent weeks that the plan to crack down on benefit tourism showed No 10 was not serious about introducing major reforms because there is relatively little evidence of benefit abuse by EU citizens.
Barroso questioned whether British citizens who lived in other EU countries – believed to be between 1.4 and 2 million people – would be able to continue to do so if Britain imposed restrictions on free movement. “Britain has to offer to other European citizens [what] the EU offers to British citizens,” he said. “It is a matter of fairness.”
The European commission president warned that Britain would have “zero” influence if it left the EU, pointing out that Cameron was currently seeking to persuade fellow EU leaders to contribute an extra €1bn (£792m) to fight the Ebola virus. “What would be the influence of the prime minister of Britain if he was not part of the EU? It would be zero. Inside the EU you can get much more than outside the EU.”
Britain would have less influence on the world stage outside the EU. “It would be negative for the EU and for Britain,” he said of a UK withdrawal. “Britain is a great country with a great history. But it is 60 million people. Do we believe that Britain alone can discuss on an equal footing with the US or with a giant like China? If it does it in the EU – yes we have much more influence.”
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