Cameron mustn’t say “quotas”

November 3, 2014

By Hugo Dixon

Hugo Dixon is Editor-at-Large, Reuters News. The opinions expressed are his own. 

David Cameron may be on the verge of making a historic error. The UK prime minister is agonising over whether to set an annual cap on the number of Europeans who are legally entitled to work in the UK. He plans to make a speech on the topic before the end of the year.

The snag is that imposing quotas would break a European Union treaty commitment to allow free movement of people. If the UK just went ahead and stopped people coming there to work, it would be hauled up in front of the European Court of Justice.

More likely, if Cameron decided that he wants to impose quotas, he would first seek to secure the right to do so as part of his planned renegotiations of Britain’s relationship with the EU before holding a referendum on whether the country should stay in the 28-nation bloc. The problem is that it is inconceivable that he could negotiate such a deal.

Therefore, if the prime minister really commits himself to quotas, his position will force him to campaign to quit the EU – assuming that he wins next year’s general election and so is in a position to hold his promised In/Out referendum.

Few people believe Cameron wants to pull Britain out of the EU. He seems to understand that it would reduce the UK’s prosperity and influence. But he is increasingly boxed in by the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants Britain to quit the EU and has persuaded a majority of voters that immigration is the most important issue facing the country.

Last month, one member of parliament from Cameron’s Conservatives switched to UKIP and won a landslide by-election victory. A second defecting MP is expected to win another by-election this month. The Tories are panicking because they fear they will lose next year’s general election as a result of voters switching to UKIP.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, the popular Conservative mayor of London, has come out in favour of quotas on EU immigrants. Johnson plans to become an MP next year, putting him in pole position to take over from Cameron if the prime minister slips.

Cameron is, therefore, under huge pressure to match Johnson’s pledge on quotas – to see off the external threat from UKIP and the internal threat from the London mayor.

The prime minister’s allies at home and the UK’s friends abroad must do their damnedest to stop him making this error.

Other EU leaders should make clear to Cameron that the free movement of people is a red line which the UK cannot possibly cross. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has already been clear. Others – including France’s Francois Hollande, Italy’s Matteo Renzi and Poland’s Donald Tusk, who will soon become president of the European Council – should do so too, either privately or publicly.

It would be great if other EU leaders can at the same time offer Cameron an olive branch. They should repeat Merkel’s message that, while free movement of people is non-negotiable, they support tightening up the rules to make it harder for immigrants to abuse benefit systems.

Very few Europeans actually come to Britain to live off benefits. But the voters have been so whipped up into believing that they are being swamped by scroungers that Cameron unfortunately needs to secure some deal on this topic.

Other EU leaders should also make clear that they are sympathetic to Britain’s ideas for reforming the bloc – such as cutting red tape, completing the single market in services and decentralising decisions where possible. But beyond that, there is little they can do to save Cameron from himself apart from stressing the risks of quitting the EU.

Many Conservatives think they can have their cake and eat it: leave the bloc but still retain full access to its single market. So it would be useful if Merkel and others said this would be impossible. They could stress that Switzerland doesn’t get a passport for its banking industry to operate in the EU, despite allowing free movement of people; and that, if Britain quit and imposed quotas, it would get even less access.

But it is not just foreign leaders who should be trying to bend Cameron’s mind. British businesses need to say publicly that they are opposed to quotas on commercial grounds and that they are worried that promising to introduce them could put Britain on a fast track to quitting the EU.

It might even be helpful if business leaders, most of whom normally back the Conservatives, hinted that they were rethinking their support. Although Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, is not an appealing prospect as prime minister, at least he wouldn’t take Britain out of the EU.

The other person who might be able to influence Cameron is Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister. His Liberal Democrats want to stay in the EU. He should, therefore, tell the prime minister that there’s no way he will renew the coalition after the election if Cameron insists on quotas.

The prime minister will make up his mind in the next few weeks. EU leaders, British business and Clegg need to move fast.

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