László Andor speaks English with a Hungarian accent but his hesitations owe more to diplomacy than a lack of fluency. The European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion has already attracted the animus of British Eurosceptics by suggesting that David Cameron’s call for further restrictions on EU migrants’ rights to claim benefits risks giving the UK a “nasty” image abroad. He doesn’t want to meddle in Britain’s affairs, he explains over coffee at a hotel in central London, but when facts in the debate about EU membership go astray, someone has to put the record straight.
“We have to say the truth. We have to avoid portraying the citizens of new member states working in this country as an excessive burden when in reality they contribute a lot,” Andor tells me. The evidence, he says, shows that migrants from eastern Europe come to the UK to work, not to claim benefits, and that their industriousness is a spur to economic growth.
On 1 January, the EU will lift temporary limitations on the rights of Romanians and Bulgarians to enter the UK labour market. That threshold, I suggest to Andor, combined with Conservative fears of Ukip and tabloid hysteria, are the reasons behind Cameron’s aggressive posture.
“It is regrettable that the Prime Minister is under such pressure,” he concurs, adding that other EU leaders have faced similar resistance at home. Is the UK debate unusually toxic? “The Ukip representatives in the European Parliament bring a specific flavour,” Andor replies laconically. “Since the Ukip members in the European Parliament are very active, I don’t think it helps improve the image of the country. So it’s very important that the more mainstream parties present a different image.”
That sounds like a coded warning to the Tories not to ape Nigel Farage’s rhetoric. A commissioner cannot accuse a national government of sabotaging the European project, but there is a hint of bafflement on Andor’s part over Cameron’s strategy. If the Prime Minister’s intention is to link benefits, enlargement and free movement as he renegotiates Britain’s EU membership, he needs to clarify what he wants. “We heard this so-called benefit tourism rhetoric some years ago and we asked the British authorities to present facts and figures,” Andor says. “It never happened. If no facts and figures are presented about an alleged problem, I don’t think the EU member states or EU institutions will find it easy to help.”
That is not encouraging for the Tory ambition to “repatriate” powers from Brussels. The sceptics’ main target is employment protection, which many Conservatives consider a burden on enterprise but the rest of Europe sees as vital for a level playing field. One country unilaterally diluting the rights of workers cheapens its labour and so undercuts trading partners.
Employment protection is “one of the cornerstones of the single market”, Andor says. He doesn’t expect Cameron to have any better luck renegotiating free movement. “If you start thinking of raising walls to migration, others will start to think about raising barriers to cross-border capital movements or trade. Then the whole structure is going to unravel.”
If Andor’s view reflects a wider European reluctance to indulge Cameron by allowing him a wholesale renegotiation, the Prime Minister also needs to manage his party’s and Britain’s expectations better. As we finish our coffee, the commissioner concludes with a warning to the pro-Europeans who have let “Europhobia” set the terms of debate. “It gets very dangerous when the good things are portrayed as bad things. When a country that gains a lot from migration allows this to be portrayed as a downside, we have a problem.”