Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg condemned reported plans by his Conservative coalition partners to restrict the free movement of European Union workers as an illegal “disaster” for British business.
Clegg spoke after Tory Home Secretary Theresa May said reform of the right to free movement should form part of any negotiations on new arrangements for Britain’s EU membership. The Sunday Times newspaper yesterday published a leaked Home Office paper suggesting she favors a possible cap on migration from the EU of 75,000 a year, 30,000 less than at present.
“The City of London would grind to a halt overnight,” Clegg told a news conference today, referring to the capital’s financial district. “My advice to the Home Office is to spend less time leaking policies that are illegal and undeliverable.”
The imposition of limits “would be very unwelcome to the 2 million or so Brits who live and work abroad, who I don’t think would thank the Conservative Party for entering a tit-for-tat race to the bottom where everybody in the EU starts pulling up the drawbridge,” Clegg said.
Responding to public concern about an influx of Romanians and Bulgarians into the U.K. after controls on workers from the two countries are lifted next month, the government is tightening rules on migrants’ access to state-funded benefits. Interviewed on the BBC’s “Today” radio program, May declined to comment on the leaked report.
“In looking at reform of the EU, we need to look at this whole question of the arrangements for new countries that come in,” she said. “At the moment, you can restrict free-movement rights for seven years.”
“We need to look at this and think about whether that should be longer, whether it should be more flexible, whether we should look at restricting free-movement rights until a country’s national income, GDP, is at a certain level, so we are not looking at the great disparities we sometimes see across the EU,” she told the BBC.
Some parts of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tory party, which has pledged to hold a referendum on possible U.K. withdrawal from the EU by the end of 2017, are “flirting with exit” from the 28-nation bloc, which puts them in a weaker position for renegotiation, Clegg said.
Clegg’s argument was echoed in Brussels today by European Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd.
“Restricting the free movement of workers into the U.K. would be a massive own goal for the U.K. economy and the U.K. welfare system, given that they currently benefit hugely from inflows of migrant workers,” Todd told reporters.
Clegg also said he’s “given up” trying to convince his Conservative coalition partners to reduce universal pensioner benefits for the wealthy. With 17 months to go before the next general election, the Tories “don’t want to know,” Clegg said.