Lord Mandelson, the former EU trade commissioner, has urged the UK government to broaden its Brexit negotiating strategy claiming there is a new appetite in the EU to review how rules on free movement of workers within the EU should operate.
Mandelson, who remains in touch with senior European leaders and diplomats, said many politicians, faced by intense electoral pressures, were showing a new flexibility on free movement. He said “this meant there was more to bargain over than some in Whitehall think”.
Theresa May has insisted Brexit’s purpose is to end the free movement of EU migrants into the UK, and is willing to pay a potentially high economic price for this by losing full access to the EU single market.
In public, EU leaders are retaining a firm public line, saying free movement is one of the pillars of the EU, and insisting the UK will not be allowed to cherry-pick those aspects of the EU that it likes.
But Mandelson believes the UK should be investigating the new flexibility being shown by mainstream politicians in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and France, and see if a deal can be reached on free movement.
In a sign of the populist pressure on politicans, the Dutch Labour leader, Lodewijk Asscher, this week threatened to veto the UK’s Brexit deal if the EU at the same time did not reform free movement laws to stop wage under-cutting.
Speaking to the Guardian, Mandelson acknowledged that free movement remained a firm EU principle, but added “the question many are asking in the EU is how this principle should operate in the future”.
He claimed there may now be support for an EU-wide emergency brake on the number of EU migrants entering a country for a specific period, a proposal that David Cameron in 2015 decided not to pursue with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Previously it has been argued the EU is only interested in tightening its external borders, but the terms of free movement within the EU is not for discussion.
Identifying “a change in the climate of opinion”, Mandelson said: “The commission is already giving member states greater control over social security payments to EU migrants. The freedom to move is not the same as the right to settle, as I was told in one EU national capital the other week.”
He added: “Other member states wouldn’t dream of extending the sort of welcome and welfare generosity that EU nationals have received in Britain. In my experience, other European governments are amazed by the relaxed labour market rules that apply to newcomers in Britain.
“The porous nature of Europe’s external frontier is already worrying many. Europe will never accept again the unimpeded flow of refugees and others from outside Europe we saw last year.”
Mandelson, appointed this week to advise the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, on the Brexit negotiations, said: “All this means there is more to bargain over than some in Whitehall think.”
He said an EU-wide, rather than a UK exclusive, emergency brake on free movement “is the route to pursue but it won’t show fruit if British ministers continue their current negative approach”.
“No doubt for the hardliners – those who want the clearest, quickest break – the last thing they want is a serious negotiation that will muddy the waters of Britain’s exit. But for those who fear the economic consequences of a hard Brexit it is vital to explore all avenues including free movement of people.”
Mandelson’s interpretation of the changing European mood is shared by the former Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg. He said: “In my view, it is not beyond the ingenuity of Theresa May and Angela Merkel – if they wanted to – to forge a new pan-European approach to immigration that deals both with the EU’s porous external borders, which are of huge concern to millions of voters across the continent, and with some of the concerns about freedom of movement in the UK.”
Evidence that some key forces are changing their attitude in facing of the populist threat is emerging. The EU commission a fortnight ago proposed new restrictions on access to social security benefits, including a statement that no migrant should have a “legal right to residence” if they were not working or actively looking for a job.
The commission vice-president, Jyrki Katainen, said the aim was to create “a closer link between the place where contributions are paid and where benefits are claimed, ensuring a fair financial distribution of burden between member states”.
The German coalition government has passed a law debarring EU migrants living in Germany from receiving financial support unless they have been in the country for at least five years, or if they are entitled to receive the money from their previous employment.
The German coalition deputy, Sigmar Gabriel, this week said the children of EU migrants who live abroad should only be paid an allowance at the level of their native country. He claimed entire streets of “scrap real estate” in large German cities were inhabited by migrants who are in Germany just to receive lucrative payments.
German observers also believe that Merkel, who faces elections next year, will shift to the right and will be open to an emergency brake, and if, as is likely, she forms a new coalition, but without the social democrats, will have the political space to act.
Germany has already introduced border checks within the EU in face of terrorist threats.
In the Netherlands,Asschler, who faces difficult elections early next year, asserted Labour must be seen as wanting to stop labour migration “when in fact it is nothing more than wage competition”.
He said he wanted to seize the Brexit negotiations to address “this injustice” of unfair wage competition. The Netherlands, he said, should if necessary, resort to a veto if the negotiations do not lead to “fairer rules”.
Mandelson’s critics will claim the horse has bolted on this issue, and he is misreading the European mood in an attempt to keep the UK in the single market, or even in the EU.
His critics will argue Merkel, in the face of opposition to free movement reform from eastern European countries, will always choose EU cohesion over changes to the labour market. They will also claim the UK is not just leaving the EU due to border controls, but a wider demand to reclaim national sovereignty.
Mandelson said: “The difficulty is that too many Brexit ministers are more intent on concocting reasons why the EU 27 won’t negotiate with Britain rather than thinking through what will encourage them to do so constructively.”
This article was written by Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 21st December 2016 11.54 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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