Friday, September 30, 2011

How to lose support for EU free movement and alienate people

The European Commission just made it a lot more difficult to defend free movement in Europe. Free movement and open borders (two separate but related EU issues) are very difficult things to sell to the public, witness the Bombardier row (which had complicated causes, but partly flowed from competition rules designed to uphold free movement/the EU single market), the Danish restrictions on the Schengen agreement or the Lincolnshire strikes back in 2009.

In public opinion, free movement is usually bundled together with other complex issues such as immigration, the 'British jobs for British workers' debate, welfare and potential wage dumping. Economically, we would argue that free movement is on the whole beneficial, but politically, due to its society-changing potential, it's potentially explosive.

Therefore, free movement has to be treated with silk-gloves, with constant attention paid to national sensitivities. If Europe wants to keep it, national governments simply need to be given some discretion, within reason.

Clearly, this isn't something that the Commission understands. This week, the Commission threatened to take legal action against the UK's "right to reside" test on EU nationals, arguing that it violates EU law. Under UK rules, British citizens automatically qualify for benefits such as child benefit, child tax credit, state pension credit, jobseekers' allowance and unemployment support. But nationals from other countries have to pass a right to reside test before they can qualify for such benefits. The Commission argues that this practice indirectly discriminates against nationals of another member state, in turn breaching EU rules on social security co-ordination. The Commission insists that existing EU rules on who qualifies as a resident of a different member state are already strict enough to make sure that "only those persons who have actually moved their centre of interest to a member state (other than their own) are considered habitually resident there".

The Commission's statement was met with a barrage of criticism in the UK.

Employment Minister Chris Grayling said, "This is a very unwelcome development...I’m really surprised the European Commission has chosen to go into battle on this very sensitive issue, when there are clearly far more pressing problems to solve in Europe."

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith wrote in the Telegraph:
"These new proposals pose a fundamental challenge to the UK's social contract. They could mean the British taxpayer paying out over £2 billion extra a year in benefits to people who have no connection to our country and who have never paid in a penny in tax. This threatens to break the vital link which should exist between taxpayers and their own Government."

"France, Germany and Denmark have all spoken out against the commission's insistence on issuing this week's provocative decision on benefit payments. This decision confirms the worry that the EU is pulling more areas of national competence into its fold. Yet these are decisions taken outside of national democratic processes by unelected and unaccountable institutions."
Given the recent statements from various prominent Labour party figures, apologising for "getting it wrong" on EU immigration, the Commission is likely to face more or less united UK opposition.

Even supporters of free movement will find it hard to see how the UK's "right to reside" tests are unreasonable. The Commission is now picking a fight with several EU countries, on the hugely sensitive issue of "welfare tourism" at a time when populist parties are on the rise across Europe.

Either the Commission backs down, or it risks facing a massive backlash.

As we've mentioned before, if the Commission wants to squash all public support for the EU, it's doing a pretty good job.

7 comments:

Ruxandra said...

Hi,

I have a question if I may. How can someone who immigrates to Britain, for instance, can immediately apply for social security?
I was under the impression that at least unemployment benefits were given through the filling out of an application in which the person had to prove that they have been searching actively for a job.

Ruxandra said...

Hi,

I'm not sure whether or not my previous post has been published or sent to the person monitoring the floor, however I have found the following piece of information regarding unemployment benefit claims in UK:
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/money/reader_guides/article5572594.ece

It would be interesting to know if this information is correct and whether or not immigrants are entitled to the benefits and under what conditions.

Ruxandra said...

Aditionally, the blog article you have published raises very interesting questions regarding migration and what kind of social security system we should have in European Union, or indeed if a common one is needed or if simply adjustments need to be made to the national ones.
It is my impression that currently we are faced with two different types of migration: one is that of the unskilled labour (with its particular characteristics and here I include networks of migration) and that of the highly skilled labour.
Should a differentiation be made between the two?
What are the implications of these two kinds of migration for the sending countries (from where the migrants leave) as well as for the receiving countries (where these migrants decide to live and work)?

Peripatetic Scribe said...

To quote your phrase: "Either the Commission backs down, or it risks facing a massive backlash." This, I am delighted to say, puts them between a rock and a hard place. Personally I cannot see them backing down as this would place them in a position of no escape. On the other hand, if there IS a massive backlash they only have themselves to blame for their own naivety; my feeling is "LETS GET THEM!"

Ruxandra said...

Again I would like to come back to my question and the answers I was able to find online regarding benefits in UK (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/money/reader_guides/article5572594.ece)

I do agree that immigration is a burning issue and that things should be discussed more. However, as I was arguing in 2 other comments to your article, which you have not yet approved, we currently see two types of immigration (highly skilled and low-skilled).
Immigration policy strictly connected with the free movement principle in the European Union, needs to be discussed with each member state and solutions have to be found together.
Solutions should also including local, national and international demographic trends, etc.

However, I don't believe that simply blaming the European Commission without taking any action (for instance, taking the time to write to our elected MEPs) solves the issue.

Democracy means that in the end, each citizen is responsible and should take the time to get involved!

Anonymous said...

Dear Ruxandra,

"Democracy", as practised today, no longer exists in its true meaning. Besides being one of the fundamental flaws of the EU [which was not even designed in its inception to be truly democratic, merely to appear so],its lack of a democratic mandate is one of the chief objections many voters increasingly dislike and apprehend about it.

In addition to your stated "two types of immigration", you overlook a third type - which is NO skills whatsoever and often no intention of actually "earning" the benefits so freely given by the UK govt. Fyi and in theory, a newcomer to Britain has to have resided here for 26 weeks before being eligible for benefits. No doubt, some find a way around this.

As for writing to "our elected MEPs", if you believe that in the majority of cases, this is effective in overturning the Commission's intentions, I would suggest you are overly optimistic. Have you actually achieved a result yourself via such a process? Again, although in theory you are correct in stating that all should get involve within a democracy, sadly this is equivalent to the chances of winning the lottery. The public are either too engrossed in running their everyday lives, or too apathetic/indifferent/ignorant (take your pick) to bestir themselves. That is perhaps mainly why we're in the pickle we're in.

Ruxandra said...

Hi,

Thank you for your comment and also for the information provided.
As today the world is sadly lessened by the death of Apple's CEO Steve Jobs, I would like to respond with another "provocative" idea.

As today's world grows more and more interconnected and as the ties between people strengthen as distances seem not to matter, I believe that everywhere around us are lessons to be learnt. So for me, the most important one yet is the courage to fail and the passion behind a vision.
Sure Steve Jobs knew that not everything would work with Mac from the very beginning, but it was that obsessive desire to achieve perfection which gave us the most important industrial products of our generations.

So, if we are to extrapolate these ideas, allow me to aim for the ideal in terms of politics and policy.
Do I know that democracy is not its real essence? Yes, I do.
Do I know that EU has democratic flaws? Certainly.
Do I know that there are people who might want to take advantage of the social security systems of other countries? Yes, I do.
Do I know that MEPs do not always listen and that their actual power is less than that of the Commission? Certainly.

But, I also know what things so far have allowed people in Europe to achieve. Faster transportation of goods, better opening markets for Western companies in Central and Eastern Europe, free movement of people and here, by the way, there are also British working and living in other EU countries :)
All this, as just the basis, allows for much vision and enormous potential for development in a global economy, where everything points to the fact that local players matter less than they used to and that regional constructions become more valued.

And in the end, isn't it our responsibility to educate and guide each other, as citizens of a given society using sometimes tools as simple as our actions?