If you’re interested in European politics, and especially if you’re one of those who are sceptical about the European Union, you can’t afford to miss the story of last week’s meeting of EU home affairs ministers – and the position advanced there by the United Kingdom.

Keep in mind that the eurosceptic narrative would have you believe that the EU is a bureaucratic monster devoted to stifling freedom wherever it might appear, and that the British, often fighting bravely alone, are the champions of resistance to regulation and of limiting the EU mission to defence of the common market.

Not there isn’t some truth in that narrative – just rather less than you might think. Here’s what Britain’s home secretary, Theresa May, told her EU colleagues about free movement of people:

Mrs May argues that problems caused by free movement must be addressed and the rules should be changed.

In a statement she questioned why national governments should not be be allowed to impose a cap on numbers if European immigration reached certain thresholds.

She said she planned to make clear at the Brussels meeting “that I believe we need to change the way free movement rules work”.

She added: “First, for future accession treaties, we must be able to slow full access to each other’s labour markets until we can be sure it will not lead to mass migration.

“Second, looking ahead, we must seize the opportunity presented by the prime minister’s plan to reform the EU and address the problems caused by free movement.

“It is right that the national governments of the EU reform the way free movement rules work.”

Mrs May is also expected to propose requiring new member states to reach a certain level of income or economic output per head before full access to free movement rights is allowed.

(This is all from the BBC report, but other reports are much the same: here’s the Telegraph’s, for example, and here’s Deutsche Welle’s.)

Put more briefly: freedom of movement is all very well, as long as it doesn’t result it lots of people moving to Britain.

To their credit, the other EU members were pretty unsympathetic. The official press release from the meeting notes that “The overwhelming majority of member states agreed that the free movement of persons is a core principle of the European Union and a fundamental right of all EU citizens that should be upheld and promoted.”

It also shoots down the British argument that Romanians and Bulgarians will just come to Britain to claim welfare: “The document [from the European Commission] suggests that most EU citizens moving to another member state do so to work and that they are more likely to be more economically active than nationals and less likely to claim social benefits.”

There was a particularly sharp response from the Romanian labor minister, who said that immigrants were doing Britain a favor: “Taking into account the fact that Romanian citizens in the UK contribute greatly to the GDP and also that many of these people are young and well-qualified, the UK should be grateful that these people have come to live there.”

Behind this debate lies the whole problem of division of responsibility between the EU and its member states (which I’ve talked about a couple of times recently), and the fact that eurosceptics refuse to admit that the problem exists, evidently thinking you can have a free trade policy without any mechanism to enforce it.

That’s what makes May’s position (and that of the Tory leadership in general) so hard to defend – and why, as I put it two years ago, “if you scratch a moderate eurosceptic you often find a deeper hostility lurking underneath.” Unwilling to make the break with the EU but desperate to appease its europhobic backbench, the Cameron government wants to resist control from Brussels but hold on to (some of) the freedoms that Brussels is there to defend.

But there’s something deeper at work as well: the strange delusion that you’re entitled to call yourself a supporter of freedom if you think goods should be able to move freely but not people. And that’s a delusion that’s certainly not confined to the Conservative Party.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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