Politicians in Britain and other European Union (EU) states risk pandering to prejudice and xenophobia by considering restricting free movement of labour within the bloc, EU Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor said on Monday.
Although Andor did not name him, his comments were clearly aimed at British Prime Minister David Cameron, whom Andor has criticised in the past.
Cameron, who wants to renegotiate Britain's EU ties if re-elected next year and offer Britons a referendum on EU membership, has called for curbs on free movement within the EU and raised concerns that migrants from Romania and Bulgaria may be heading to Britain in search of welfare handouts.
But Andor said most people who move from one EU country to another do so to work rather than claim benefits, and that there was a big gap between perceptions and facts on immigration.
"These workers are of considerable benefit to the economies, and to the welfare systems, of the receiving countries," said Andor, in a lecture in Bristol in western England, according to a text of his speech released by the European Commission, the EU's executive. "Politicians should be responsible enough to talk about facts, rather than to pander to prejudice, or in the worst cases, xenophobia."
On Sunday, Swiss voters narrowly backed a proposal to reintroduce immigration quotas with the EU, a vote that EU officials said could cost Switzerland its privileged access to the European single market.
A spokesman for Cameron said on Monday the vote reflected "growing concern" around the impact of free movement. "That is why the prime minister and other ministers have been raising this issue and will continue to do so with their counterparts across the EU," he told reporters.
Cameron, trailing in opinion polls before elections to the European Parliament in May and a national election a year later, is under pressure from the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants stricter curbs on immigration.
The free movement of citizens is one of four "fundamental freedoms" enshrined in EU law, alongside the free movement of goods, services and capital. It has been a cherished component of EU membership, allowing students to move to any member state to study and workers to seek opportunities abroad.
But some, notably in Germany, Britain, Denmark and Austria, are having second thoughts about the EU's eastward enlargement in 2007, which made poorer countries members of the bloc, with a seven-year delay for access to some job markets.
The EU's Andor said member states could not "cherry pick" which freedoms they wanted.
There was no evidence that mobile EU citizens represented a burden on the welfare system of their host countries, he said, adding that in Britain, for example, public debt would be much higher without immigration because of an ageing population.