Exclusive: Favourite for EU top job Jean-Claude Juncker ‘not budging on free movement of people’

Jean-Claude Juncker open to returning some powers, and keen to keep Britain in the EU, but insists on core values

Fulda, Germany

The frontrunner in the race for the EU’s top job has warned David Cameron against any attempt to limit freedom of movement across the union as part of the Prime Minister’s bid to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Brussels.

In an interview with The Independent, Jean-Claude Juncker said that he was open to discussions about returning some powers to the UK, but made clear he would not budge on the “basic principle” of free movement of people.

Mr Juncker, the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg who is campaigning to succeed José Manuel Barroso as head of the European Commission, wants Britain to remain in the EU and has put policies aimed at keeping the union intact at the centre of his campaign.

But he has drawn a line at renegotiating the core value of freedom of movement across the 28 member states – an issue over which Mr Cameron frequently clashes with Brussels, most recently with plans for tougher rules for migrants claiming benefits in the UK.

“I’m a little surprised by this debate in Britain,” Mr Juncker said, adding that successive British governments had been enthusiastic cheerleaders for enlarging the EU.

 “I don’t understand why Britain is stepping away from one of the basic principles in the European treaties. You have to know if you are enlarging the European Union to Bulgaria, to Romania, to Poland, workers out of these countries can and will come to your country.”

Mr Cameron yesterday indicated that the British appetite for expansion had peaked, and spelt out his opposition to potential new members such as Turkey unless there were major changes to freedom of movement. He signalled he could veto future applications, pointing out that any new members had to be unanimously agreed by all current states.

He argued that the citizens of new EU member states should be allowed to travel around the Union only once their per capita income reached a certain level.

Mr Cameron has vowed to claw back powers from Brussels ahead of a promised referendum on EU membership in 2017. He told the BBC yesterday that he was optimistic about his chances, but added: “We will have the referendum whether or not I have successfully negotiated.” David Cameron speaking about this month’s European elections on the BBC David Cameron speaking about this month’s European elections on the BBC

For successful negotiations, he will be looking for an ally in Brussels when the next Commission starts its five-year term in November, a role Mr Juncker appeared to be pitching for, despite concerns in London that he is too pro-integration.

“I would like to take care of the British specificities,” Mr Juncker said aboard his campaign bus in the German city of Fulda, just a fortnight ahead of European Parliament elections that will decide whether he or the Socialist candidate, Martin Schulz, will be put forward to lead the Commission.

“We have to respect the British desire to have a discussion inside the European institutions [about] whether or not some competencies... should be repatriated to the national parliaments,” said Mr Juncker, whose centre-right European People’s Party is currently forecast to win the most seats in the May 22-25 polls.

He mentioned policing and justice powers as an area open for discussion, but stressed that it was “not a one way debate” and Mr Cameron should in turn not stand in the way of eurozone nations who want greater economic integration. In 2011 Mr Cameron vetoed tough new rules for eurozone nations on tax, spending and deficits.

Mr Schulz shares Mr Juncker’s policies on the free movement of people, but is even more outspoken on closer integration than his rival. In his current role as President of the European Parliament, he has spoken out against British attempts at renegotiation.

Due to the intricacies of a new system being trialled this year to select the next Commission President, Mr Juncker and Mr Schulz are campaigning to win both the votes of the people and the support of the leaders of the 28 EU countries.

Until now the heads of state were responsible for appointing a President of the Commission, the executive arm, which proposes and upholds the bloc’s laws.

In an effort to boost interest in the election and make the process more democratic, this year the seven political groups in the European Parliament have been asked to put forward candidates for the job. In theory, the group that wins the most seats will have their nominee anointed by the heads of state.

British diplomats have been scathing of this plan, arguing that the position should remain politically neutral. Some leaders have also voiced reservations, leading to concerns that the heads of state could simply ignore the proposal from the parliament and again name their own candidate.

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