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Immigration and EU Freedom of Movement – the position becomes clearer

14th January 2016

On the first day of Parliament sitting after its Christmas recess, the British Prime Minister made a statement on the outcome of the December EU Council meeting.

Clearly those that speculated that the UK would be stopped, within the slow grinding wheels of the EU, from renegotiating its membership have been proved wrong. The December EU Council dedicated an entire session, lasting several hours, to this issue and Mr. Cameron emerged confident that agreement could be reached on the key issues in February. He said that he would then be “keen to get on and hold a referendum”. This could take place as early as June 2016.

One of the UK Government’s key renegotiation issues is immigration where Mr. Cameron has said that the desire is to: “tackle abuses of the right to free movement, and deliver changes that ensure that our welfare system is not an artificial draw for people to come to Britain”. Early hopes from Eurosceptic interests that the government might look to restrict free movement are now clearly off the table from the UK government’s view, and this will accordingly form a key, if not the outstanding, area for debate in the referendum campaigns.

However, the overall scenario for the EU on immigration has been complicated by the February 2014 Swiss referendum vote to reject uncontrolled immigration from the EU. Taking up this theme, a significant number of UK Eurosceptic Conservative MPs contacted the UK Foreign Secretary; firstly to express their support for Switzerland in its renegotiations and, secondly, to request that the UK should challenge the principle that the free movement of people is “indivisible” from the other freedoms of the single market. Accordingly, ran their argument, if Switzerland or the UK (if it votes to leave the EU) cannot accept unlimited free movement of people, this should not prevent mutually beneficial co-operation in other areas. In this way, arguing now for a more flexible approach to non-EU countries may therefore be of direct benefit to the UK in the future.

In rejecting this position and despite emphasising the UK’s wish to help find an equitable solution for Switzerland, the UK Foreign Secretary replied very much along EU lines. Namely that Switzerland’s relationship to the EU holds an important lesson: access to the single market has a price and the price for Switzerland is contributing to the EU budget, complying with the EU’s rules and having no vote on how those rules are made. Clearly, there is no wish to open the free movement floodgates.

In the meantime, Switzerland is continuing its negotiations with the EU so the further question, that I put to Mr. Cameron when he made his statement is: in the event of Switzerland being successful in restricting freedom of movement, to whatever extent, should the UK be entitled to the same or would the UK’s renegotiation demands on immigration be changed? Mr. Cameron’s response on 5 January, was again very much in line with the EU position; making it clear that whilst the EU may be happy to talk to Switzerland about free movement, this is at the cost of “everything else is up for grabs – there is no guarantee of Swiss access to any part of the single market without agreement in this area”.

So the UK government is making it clear that, from its perspective, British and Swiss discussions with the EU are of a different nature and also timing; with the next EU/Swiss bilateral negotiations due to take place after the February EU Council. In the meantime the Swiss Federal Council has, in a parallel move, instructed the preparation of a unilateral safeguard clause.

Clearly as the UK/Swiss immigration positions start to solidify, so does the emerging picture of both the battleground of the UK’s referendum and the Swiss fallout position.

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