Immigration from European Union countries could be capped at 75,000 under proposals set out by the Home Office for sweeping changes to the UK’s relationship with Brussels.
A leaked government report on the effect on Britain of the EU’s policy allowing free movement of people suggests a cap could cut net migration from EU countries by 30,000 from the current 106,000 a year.
The Westminster document, seen by a Sunday newspaper, also suggests blocking EU immigrants from claiming benefits or tax credits for their first five years in the UK.
Current restrictions on the movement of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens are due to be lifted at the end of the month.
The new proposals would mean professionals and highly skilled migrants from countries such as Germany, Holland or Austria could only move to the UK if they had a job offer.
Lower-skilled workers would be allowed to settle if they had jobs on an approved list of occupations for which there was a national shortage.
The review was overseen by Home Secretary Theresa May as part of the government’s assessment of the balance of powers between the UK and Brussels.
Other proposals include giving British citizens a “national preference” by explicitly reserving jobs for them and limiting labour movement to the UK from poorer countries joining the EU until their GDP is 75 per cent of Britain’s. Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron said tougher controls on freedom of movement within the EU will be needed and suggested a GDP-based restriction.
He said: “The reason for that is if you look at migration between Britain and Germany or France and Germany, countries of pretty even GDP, the movements are pretty much balanced.
“It’s only when you have a real imbalance, when you have a poor country and a much wealthier country, that you get these vast movements.”
With the restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania set to expire, Mr Cameron also said that “an influx of non-skilled workers is a major cause of concern”.
However, the proposals were labelled “ridiculous” by the Conservatives’ pro-Europe coalition colleagues.
A senior Liberal Democrat source said: “This surely can only happen by leaving the EU? It seems ridiculous.
“Even the Tories don’t think they can renegotiate to that extreme. The amount of British people it would impact would far outweigh the people they’re trying to stop, and British business would be crippled.”
Any attempt to challenge free movement rules would face resistance in Europe.
European commissioner Laszlo Andor recently hit out at British politicians’ comments about the lifting of restrictions on the two European states, saying on Twitter: “Responsible politicians should avoid legitimising xenophobic reactions that indeed weaken the European spirit.”
He also suggested the UK could be taken to court over existing proposals to tighten rules on migrants claiming benefits.
Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna stressed the importance of stopping migrant workers undercutting their British counterparts and suggested the government should properly enforce the national minimum wage and increase fines on employers who do not pay it.
He also called for a “properly balanced” debate on the issue, saying migration had brought a lot of benefits to Britain.