David Cameron is to be warned by the European commission that a central demand in his renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership terms is likely to be rejected as unacceptable on the grounds that it risks infringing the founding principle of the EU on the free movement of people.
As the prime minister prepares to explain his plans to curb EU migration to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in London on Wednesday, the commission is set to tell No 10 that it cannot demand EU citizens have a job offer before they travel to the UK.
Cameron will use his talks with Merkel in Downing Street, following a joint tour of the British Museum’s exhibition on Germany with its director, Neil MacGregor, to give his most detailed explanation of his plans to cut the number of migrants from the EU.
The talks are officially designed to cover the G7 summit in Bavaria in June, to be chaired by Merkel. But Downing Street confirmed on Monday that the prime minister would discuss his EU reform plans, which are designed to form the basis of a renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership terms before a referendum that will be held in 2017 if he wins the general election in May.
The prime minister toned down a speech on immigration at the end of November after the German chancellor said that she would not accept a rewriting of the founding EU principle, laid down in the 1957 treaty of Rome, that guarantees “freedom of movement for persons” as well as for “services and capital”.
Cameron abandoned an expected attempt to limit free movement of people – there had been suggestions that he would propose an emergency brake on EU citizens – and instead focused on toughening rules on welfare.
But the commission, the official guardian of the EU treaties, is concerned by the prime minister’s call in his speech for EU citizens to have a job offer before they travel to the UK. In his speech on 28 November, the prime minister said: “So let’s be clear what all these changes taken together will mean. EU migrants should have a job offer before they come here. UK taxpayers will not support them if they don’t.”
The commission is preparing to let No 10 know that the proposal would be unworkable because it would be impossible to distinguish between EU jobseekers and tourists entering the UK. It would also infringe the free movement of people which allows EU citizens to travel and settle freely around the EU.
Cameron made clear in an interview on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sunday that he is determined to embark on a revision of the Lisbon treaty, the EU’s governing document, if he wins the general election. He is saying that he will reform – though not rip up – the principle of free movement of workers in two ways through treaty change.
In the first place he will aim to reverse a 1991 ruling by the European court of justice to ensure that an EU jobseeker would be deported after six months if they have failed to find a job. Secondly, the rules on benefits would be changed to ensure that the EU jobseeker would not be able to claim any benefits during those six months, making it impossible for them to remain in the UK. The changes are designed to create an expectation that an EU citizen would not come to the UK without a job offer.
The European commission has a seat at the table in the European council – the collection of EU heads of government and state – where EU treaties are revised. But it does not have a vote in treaty revisions.
The commission declined to comment. A spokesman pointed to remarks by Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, to the Guardian and other European publications in December that he was happy to discuss Cameron’s proposals but added: “This fundamental right of free movement of workers cannot be questioned existentially.”
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