The Foreign Secretary has said Britain is “wide open to abuse” by “freeloading” European Union migrants who are exploiting the country’s generous social security system which he admitted may have to be changed domestically to deal with the anger of voters at billions handed out by the Treasury.
Philip Hammond tried to keep the government line on tough action and renegotiation with Brussels going as he told MPs they were “determined” to reform Britain’s relationship so there is “sufficient impact on migration numbers to satisfy the public,” the Telegraph reports.
But the specific reference to domestic welfare reforms may indicate that the Government has realised the only chance of changing the current situation is to make social security payouts harder for everyone in order not to fall foul of EU discrimination laws.
His speech comes only days after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Britain should consider a “divorce” and that free movement of people was one of the Commission’s own ‘red lines’ on any renegotiating.
The speech in Paris by the former Luxembourg Prime Minister was the first time he had spoken publicly about a Brexit, reinforcing his message about the ‘doomed romance’ between London and Brussels saying he would not get down on his knees and “beg” Britain to stay a member.
His use of the word “freeloading” is bound to infuriate European politicians and Eurocrats, who have made considerable efforts to talk about the importance of migration for the UK economy and the opportunities that membership provides for those looking for workers and those in the UK who work abroad.
Addressing MPs, the Foreign Secretary said: “As the Prime Minister has set out on more than one occasion, we have increasing agreement across the European Union that we need to address abuse of free movement.
“Free movement to work is one of the principles of the European Union; free movement to freeload is not one of the principles of the European Union. Britain is not the only country affected by this problem and not the only country determined to address it.”
Mr Hammond attempted to smooth over any ruffled feathers at home or abroad by telling members of the European scrutiny select committee that he “very much hopes” that he will be able to support continued membership of the EU, but made it clear that significant reforms would be needed for him to do so.
“One of the most common themes I hear in discussing abuse of free movement with European partners is a request to us to look at the way they do things and see if we couldn’t tighten up our own system,” Mr Hammond said.
“We are wide open to abuse. We have tightened up some things already, there are going to be more measures that we can introduce that will make it more difficult for people coming from the European Union to abuse our system.”
His talk of reforming the UK system – which is the only way of stopping EU migrants having instant access to anything a UK citizen is entitled to – could, however, be a signal that the government know they are fighting a losing battle with Brussels.
But the tough words were not met with support from opposition parties, including UKIP who do not believe that fundamental reforms are a realistic option.
“As we head towards the general election, the desperation of the Tories to appear to be ‘tough ‘on immigration is becoming more and more self-evident,” said Steven Woolfe MEP, the party’s immigration spokesman.
“The defence secretary thinks we’re being ‘swamped’ by immigrants, the Prime Minister holds a get tough news conference on the subject then doesn’t list immigration as one of his election priorities and now the foreign secretary thinks they’re all ‘freeloaders’” he added.
“Both of these terms do not enhance the debate on how to develop a fair and ethical migration policy for the UK. Most immigrants coming to Britain want to work and play a decent part in our society. The critical issue is, we must control the numbers of people who want to come here legally and prevent, catch and deport those who get here illegally.”
Meanwhile, campaign group Business for Britain revealed figures which showed that claims Brits abroad claimed more in benefits and entitlements than EU citizens in Britain do were “disingenuous”.
The article said there were over 30,000 Britons claiming unemployment benefits in other EU countries, but almost 65,000 EU nationals are claiming JSA in the UK – something which was called “incompatible with British Influence’s claims” by the eurosceptic group.
“It… showed the immigration debate is more nuanced than sometimes portrayed,” they argued. “It showed how unemployed Brits abroad were more likely to claim out of work benefits in Ireland and Germany in particular, while EU nationals claiming JSA in the UK predominantly came from Poland, Slovakia, Portugal plus the other Baltic states.
“It’s also worth noting the investigation was limited by its focus on unemployment benefit (Jobseekers Allowance in the UK). Had it included in-work benefits (such as tax credits in the UK) the number of claimants recorded in the UK would have been far higher compared to its European companions. The UK is unique in that it has in work benefits which Open Europe has calculated can be worth £330 per week to an EU migrant in the UK.”
“But regardless of this, as much as British Influence may wish to spin it, 30,000 is not bigger than 65,000.”