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14 September 2017

The UK was already having its cake and eating it in the EU

Jean-Claude Juncker has used Brexit to propose greater integration. But the EU consistently gave the UK flexibility. 

By George Eaton

Jean-Claude Juncker’s grandiloquent State of the Union speech is being hailed by Brexiteers as proof that the UK is better off out. The European Commission President spoke of his desire for deeper EU integration, including the creation of a European defence union, the establishment of a single European president and finance minister and greater control over taxation. 

Brexiteer and former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith told the Sun: “This tells you why the vote last year makes sense. Jean-Claude Juncker’s bar room utterances have given the game away. It’s the future of the EU – the march of the super-state.”

Never mind that Juncker’s proposals depend on the support of member states (Germany above all) to become a reality. What concern is it of the UK if the EU uses its departure to pursue integration? (So often hindered by Britain.)

The irony of the UK demanding “flexibility” from Brussels during the Brexit negotiations is that the EU so often showed it before. Britain enjoyed a formal opt-out from the euro (the only member state other than Denmark to do so), it remained outside the borderless Schengen Zone, it received a £4.9bn budget rebate and was granted numerous home affairs opt-outs. 

True, the EU did not grant the UK greater control of free movement (which helped lead to Brexit). But David Cameron was awarded significant concessions during his renegotiation of the UK’s membership. They included an official exemption from “ever closer union” (which would have covered Juncker’s proposals), a four-year ban on in-work benefits for EU migrants (activable for seven years) and greater safeguards for the City of London).

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And in the case of free movement, as I’ve noted before, the UK already has the flexibility to impose greater control. 

Though EU citizens are initially permitted to live in any member state, after three months they must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student or have “sufficient resources” (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”. Far from being unconditional, then, the right to free movement is highly qualified.

Yet the supposedly immigration-averse UK has never enforced these conditions. Even under Theresa May, the Home Office judged that the cost of recording entry and exit dates was too high. Since most EU migrants are employed (and contribute significantly more in taxes than they do in benefits), there was no economic incentive to do so.

The Brexit negotiations have now stalled as the UK seeks to retain the economic benefits of EU membership from outside the union. As Britain is forced to realise that it cannot have its cake and eat it, it may yet recall that it was already doing so.