UCL European Institute


Immigration deserves a proper, open debate.

09 December 2014, 12:00 am

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In a letter to the Financial Times, UCL's Professor of EU Law Piet Eeckhout outlines his bemusement at the current discourse on immigration in the UK.
Prof Piet Eeckhout
3 December 2014

Dear Sir,

I watch with bemusement and sadness the EU "immigration" debate in this country, to which both Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron have last week contributed.  Sadness because of the wholly unfounded claims that benefit tourism is a real problem, as shown again in recent research by my colleague Christian Dustmann.  Even greater sadness because the basic EU law principles of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality, and of all EU citizens being equal, have still not penetrated public conceptions and debates.  The first principle has been on the books since 1957, and the second since the 1993 Maastricht Treaty.  Yet citizens from other EU states continue to be looked at as "immigrants", not citizens with equal rights (and of course also duties).

Bemusement because EU law has always allowed governments to differentiate according to a person's country of residence, as opposed to nationality, when it comes to taxes, benefits, student loans etc.  Provided there is a proper justification for this, a condition of a period of prior residence for a tax advantage or benefit can be imposed.  EU law does not generally require handing out benefits to citizens from other EU countries who do not work, as the EU Court of Justice recently confirmed.  There is no right to just go to any country with the highest benefits (which would not be the UK any way) and claim them.  But whether benefits and tax advantages can be withheld from EU citizens who are working, as the Prime Minister proposes, is another matter.  This would effectively create a second-class citizenship. 

Bemusement also because the current UK government has had more than four years now to make changes to its own laws, or propose changes to EU legislation. But the EU institutions and other EU capitals have been waiting to hear from Mr Cameron as to what kind of reform the UK should like to see in this field. 

A speech is one thing, making a specific and detailed case in Brussels simply requires time, effort, and a sense of purpose.  Nor, I think, should it be done in secret corridors.  Any substantial changes deserve a proper and public pan-European debate, as it risks affecting the lives of millions of migrant workers such as myself.

Yours sincerely,

Piet Eeckhout