Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on the eve of the Conservative Party conference, David Cameron said that the Freedom of Movement Directive would be included in a review of the UK's relationship with the EU which is currently being carried out by Foreign Secretary William Hague.
"I believe in the single market, I believe in free movement, but two weeks ago I visited two factories in a week and I asked the question: 'How many people do you employ from other EU countries? What's the balance?' In one it was 60%, in the other it was 50%," he told the programme. "Now heavens above, we have got so many unemployed people in our country that we want to train and educate and give apprenticeships to and get back into work."
He also suggested that the UK's future relationship with Europe could be settled as part of the next general election in 2015, rather than through a separate referendum. However, any vote would be unlikely to involve a "straight yes or no" question, he said.
"When we get that new settlement – after the next election - we should have new consent for that settlement," he said. "And I've said that could either take place through a referendum or possibly, if it was close to one, at a general election."
In 2004, the Freedom of Movement Directive (47-page / 189KB PDF) replaced nine directives and two regulations governing the right of EU citizens to enter, live and work in other member states. EU citizens may enter and remain in another state for up to three months providing that they have an identity card or valid passport. In order to stay for longer than three months the citizen must be working, whether employed or self-employed, or have sufficient resources to ensure that they "do not become a burden on the social services of the host" state during their stay. The same rights are available to students, and to the family members of citizens who meet the criteria.
The UK Government spoke out in favour last week of a new 'Single Market Act II', intended to further integrate national economies into a single EU market. Among the "12 key actions" proposed by the European Commission are measures to address the "practical and legal barriers" that exist to the free movement of citizens, business activities and investment funding through the EU.
Employment law expert David Brannan of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that Cameron's comments echoed the Government's "continued tightening" of UK immigration policy. However, the Government had little flexibility on one of the 'core freedoms' of the EU.
"Free movement of workers is one of the four core freedoms of the EU along with goods, services and capital, and has been since 1957," he said. "Over the years this freedom has expanded to cover students, self-sufficient people and the family members of such individuals, including family members who are not from EU countries. This freedom is fundamental to the EU and, as such, there is little the UK Government can do to change it without renegotiating EU treaties or leaving the EU completely."
The Government has introduced several changes to the 'points-based' immigration system (PBS), which covers immigration by workers from outside the EU. It has replaced the old Tier 1 route, which allowed highly skilled migrants to come to the UK without a job offer, with new routes for entrepreneurs, investors and people of "exceptional talent". It had also introduced a cap on the number of skilled workers who can enter under Tier 2 to fill specific vacancies, raised required skill levels and language requirements. A higher earnings threshold will also take effect from 2016, meaning that overseas workers must earn a minimum of £35,000 before becoming entitled to apply for permanent residence after five years.