Cameron's plan to block Greek immigration would break EU law

There is no legal basis for Cameron's populist promise.

While the eyes of the media were on Barclays, David Cameron casually suggested that the UK would block Greek people from entering Britain if their country left the euro. He told the Commons liaison committee:

[A]s I understand it, the legal powers are available if there are particular stresses and strains. You have to plan, you have to have contingencies, you have to be ready for anything – there is so much uncertainty in our world. But I hope those things don't become necessary.

Leaving aside Cameron's cynical populism, what "legal powers" is he referring to? The free movement of people, along with the free movement of goods, capital and services, is one of the four fundamental freedoms of the European Union. While member states have legally limited immigration from new EU countries (as we currently do in the case of Bulgaria and Romania), no country has ever restricted migration from established members. Even "in the event of war", EU law states, "Member States shall consult each other with a view to taking together the steps needed to prevent the functioning of the internal market being affected".

There is little prospect of the EU allowing Britain to unilaterally suspend migration from Greece, a member state of 31 years' standing. It was as recently as April that the EU Commission warned the UK to fully comply with European law on the free movement of people or face an EU court case. In addition, as the excellent Free Movement blog notes, since Article 18 prohibits discrimination based on nationality, any restrictions on Greek immigration would need to apply to all EU citizens.Would Cameron really be willing to see free movement suspended for UK citizens? (An event that would have deleterious consequences for his net migration target.)

Worse than the Prime Minister's feeble understanding of EU law, however, was his sinister suggestion that Greek people represent a threat to our economy. He told MPs: "I would be prepared to do whatever it takes to keep our country safe, to keep our banking system strong, to keep our economy robust. At the end of the day, as prime minister, that is your first and foremost duty." So, the biggest threat to our "robust" (recession-plagued) economy and our "strong" (crooked) banking system is posed by our fellow Europeans. Until yesterday, no country, including those that share a border with Greece, had suggested pulling up the drawbridge and abandoning the principle of free movement. How shameful that it is the UK that is the first to do so.

David Cameron said that Greek immigration could be blocked if Greece left the euro. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.