this article was published by EUreporter.co on 22 October
Juncker statement on EU free movement of people puts Cameron between rock and hard place
EU Reporter Correspondent | October 22, 2014 |
Any hopes that David Cameron might have that the new centre right dominated European Commission would help him on the question of EU citizens living and working in Britain evaporated when the new European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker said he “would not compromise on free movement of people as a fundamental principle of EU Treaties”.
Juncker was speaking after he won a comfortable majority to be installed as Commission president along with his new team of Commissioners. Juncker won the support of 423 MEPs with the hard left, the populist anti EU nationalist right like Ukip, and the Le Pens, father and daughter, voting against him along with assorted anti Jewish and neo Nazi MEPs. Conservative MEPs voted not to vote and abstained in the Juncker confirmation. Some of them voted explicitly against Juncker. A few confirmed the Commission to show support for the new UK Commissioner, Lord Hill. It is modest progress. Four months ago David Cameron, his entire party machine, British diplomats and much of the British press and EU experts in London were united in condemning Juncker sometimes in grotesque terms. Now as Downing Street realises they may need the skilful Luxembourg pro business and pro banking Europeanistafter all the Conservative government has shelved its Juncker bashing. But not to the point of actually voting for him. Juncker was curt with journalists trying to score political points at his confirmation news conference. Tory reticence to endorse him in a purely nominal vote will not have been unnoticed.
The Conservatives, from their point of view, may be right. Charles Bremner, the acute European editor of The Times, a paper that has been headlining the obsessive language Prime Minister Cameron is now using about controlling free movement of EU citizens asked Juncker if he could give London any comfort on the immigration question. Juncker was categorical in his ‘No’. “Freedom of movement is a basic principle of the European Union. If it goes so do other freedoms (of goods, capital, services). I am not prepared to change that. I am not prepared to compromise.” No other journalist in the packed press conference briefing room followed up on the question from the man from The Times.
What is a daily obsession of the British political and media class does not have the same traction across the Channel. Italy has 1 million Romanians, Germany has more Poles than the UK, and while populist parties in the model of Ukip play the card of too many foreigners arriving from new, poorer EU member states no party other than the out and out anti EU withdrawalist parties like the Front National of Mrs Le Pen in France shares the British Tory and Ukip view that the EU core principle of free movement must be completely changed. Juncker said that member states can take their own initiatives providing they do not challenge the core EU free movement principle.
He was talking about controlling access to benefits and welfare. But he added he had not seen any proposals from Downing Street on this. There was little comfort either for the widespread view of mainstream Conservatives and business groups like the CBI that Britain needs to opt out of the European social model as an essential reform if there is to be support for a referendum vote in 2017 to stay in the EU. Juncker told MEPs “It is up to us to ensure that the handwriting of the European Social Model is clearly visible in everything we do. Because Europe is the protective shielf for all of us who can call this magnificent continent their home.”
Finally, Juncker said that the new method of choosing a European Commission president, involving nominations by party groups, an open contest between candidates prior to European Parliament elections and then the person with the most votes for his political family being accepted by the Parliament and heads of government had worked well and was now dug in and would become a settled way of choosing future European Commission presidents. A smiling Martin Schultz, the pugnacious German social democrat who is president of the European Parliament and who was the candidate of the centre left for the Commisison post sat purring beside Juncker nodding in enthusiastic agreement at this symbolic transfer of power from national govenrment heads to MEPs.
Again, the Conservative Party is outside this loop ever since David Cameron quit the broad centre right alliance of parties in 2009 to form a new more nationalistic and anti Brussels political group, the ECR (European Conservatives for Reform). Many of the London writers and think tank commentators on Europe including the FT, the Economist and the Centre for European Reform were scornful of these new post Lisbon Treaty arrangements to chose the European Commission President. They may yet be proved right if the new Commission cannot live up to the grandiose assertion from Juncker that “Citizens are losing faith, extrremists on the left and right are nipping at our heels. It is time we breathed a new lease of life into the European project.”
For many in the Eurosceptic political, business and media elites in London far from giving a kiss of life to the “European project” they would like it sent to Dignitas in Zurich. After the Juncker language today the gap between the Britain of Tories, Ukip and Rupert Murdoch and the rest of the EU seems wider than ever and growing wider fast.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Europe minister.