Bruno Waterfield — telegraph.co.uk Dec 5, 2013
Britain’s welfare system is “too generous” and any abuse of benefits by EU migrants is the fault of the British authorities who pay out too much, too easily to claimants, the European Commission has said.
Viviane Reding, EU justice commissioner, on Thursday dismissed Theresa May’s pleas for changes to EU free movement rules, telling the Home Secretary that only Britain was to blame for any abuses of benefit system by European nationals.
Using distinctly undiplomatic language, the commissioner, who has refused to contemplate any tightening of EU rules before Romania and Bulgaria have free movement rights next month, made an astonishing attack on Britain’s welfare system.
“It seems that some national systems are too generous. Don’t blame the commission or EU rules for national choices and national regulatory systems,” she said.
“If member states want to restrict the availability of social benefits to EU citizens they can do two things: First, change their national systems to make them less generous. Second, apply the existing EU rules which provide safeguards to counter abuse, fraud and error: for example possible expulsion orders and re-entry bans in case of abuses.”
Mrs Reding ruled out any change to the EU free movement rules that, according to Mrs May, make it too easy for European migrants to come to Britain to establish residence and benefits entitlements.
The commission has also warned that proposals by David Cameron, the Prime Minister, to tighten up the payment of benefits to EU immigrants next year will be monitored in Brussels with a view to legal action if the measures break European law.
“Our EU rules are good and they are here to stay. Member states need to apply them to tackle abuse,” said Mrs Reding.
The comments represent a stinging rebuff to Mrs May, who failed to win the argument for existing rules to be reinterpreted by the commission.
She had also hoped that the commission would drop a legal challenge in the EU courts on how Britain enforces residency rights to welfare entitlements.
Arriving at meeting of EU justice ministers in Brussels on Thursday, Mrs May called for reform on free movement, a proposal that has support in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria.
“We need to change the way free movement operates within the European Union,” she said.
But in a change of emphasis, Mrs May has switched from demanding that the commission changes how rules are implemented now, ahead of a possible influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants in January, to seeking a long term overhaul that might require EU treaty change.
“For those new countries that come in, for accession treaties in the future: I think we need to be able to slow full access to free movement until we can be sure that mass migration is not going to take place. That, for example, could be by requiring new Member States to reach a certain level of income or economic outlook ahead before full free movement rights are allowed,” she said.
“Secondly I think we need to take the opportunity to look ahead and see how we can solve some of the problems that occur with free movement. For example, shouldn’t national governments be able to put a cap on numbers if they believe that there are issues around economic migration?”
British officials admit reform will be blocked by the commission until 2015 at the earliest, leaving the Government facing the possibility of a defeat in the EU courts next year.