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.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.