Debate over the issue has been particularly heated in recent months, as on January 1 Bulgarians and Romanians gained the right to freedom of movement in the UK. Many politicians have argued that freedom of movement facilitates “benefit tourism”, the alleged practice of moving from one Member State to another purely to benefit from the second state's welfare system. Though no evidence exists to substantiate these claims, the debate over freedom of movement is clearly set to remain a contentious topic within the EU.
Internal Voices spoke to Jean Lambert, MEP for London, who shared her views on this highly controversial topic and the work she has undertaken in this area, as well as her plans for the future.
You are one of the most prominent voices in the European Parliament on the issue of mobility of persons. What motivated you to be so active in this area?
The fact that I am one of the MEPs representing London plays a big part. London is very multicultural and includes many different cultures and nationalities. Therefore, migration and mobility issues have always been interesting to me, perhaps because many of my constituents are affected by asylum and migration laws.
When I was first elected in 1999, I inherited a dossier on the coordination of Social Security between the Member States, and I am still working on this project today! It seems like a very technical issue, but in fact it is very relevant to many EU migrants today. It affects their everyday lives in the areas of pension rights and healthcare, for example.
You mention the project of coordinating Social Security systems across the EU. What has been the general reaction to this project?
It is, of course, a highly political issue, therefore there are many reactions! Especially with the 2004 enlargement of the EU, a lot of countries have started to think about social security and welfare policies in relation to immigrants. The other problem is that there is a lack of awareness and training in the subject of social security and its delivery.
Citizens need accessible information in order to access their rights. The problem is that citizens are not able to access the information therefore they cannot exercise their rights to claim social security.
Anti-immigration rhetoric has gained a lot of momentum within national governments in recent years. Why do you think this is?
I believe that in the UK and Ireland this rhetoric became more visible due to the post 2004 enlargement of the European Union, when the free movement of workers became a lot more visible. Immigrants are now more aware of their rights than previously. The economic crisis has been used to justify restrictions on free movement. However, the economic arguments, as we have seen, do not stack up. For instance, British Agricultural and Food Production relies heavily on immigrants to survive. Furthermore, the allegations of 'benefit tourism' have yet to be substantiated by credible evidence from the Member States.
The EU Single Permit Directive aims to establish a single application procedure for workers from outside the EU to apply to work and reside in an EU country. Can you explain why this proposal is so important?
At present there are loopholes in the system preventing workers from fully exercising their right to freedom of movement. The system is designed to make migrants' lives a lot more difficult. People should be employed on the same basis within the EU. One issue is keeping state pension rights. The rationale is that if you have paid into the system you shouldn't lose your rights simply because you have moved elsewhere. There should be equality of treatment in employment. That is a fundamental right which I am working towards.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I like the fact that, on a daily basis, I have basic values to keep fighting for. Working in this position forces one to look outwards and therefore it is possible to have an impact at the grassroots as well as internationally. I enjoy the interconnection of the issues with which I work. There are universal issues present in the connection between democracy, human rights and climate issues and what is happening in the constituency I represent as an MEP: London.
Sophie is a trainee in the European Commission, working for DG Justice.