The Prime Minister made a good case for what would be a significant reformby David Goodhart / November 28, 2014 / Leave a comment
David Cameron is skilled at delivering set piece speeches. With the country getting worked up over immigration in the past few weeks—partly of his own prompting—he finally laid out his plan for reforming EU free movement in a calm and rational manner. A good days work.
His most controversial “demand” was that EU citizens should not be allowed to turn up without a job, as used to be the case until the early 1990s when freedom of movement extended from workers to citizens. Now about 40 per cent of EU incomers don’t have a job when they first arrive.
There is a danger that Britain will swing, a bit like the Netherlands did in the early 2000s, from being too open and too dismissive of public reservations about mass immigration, to having the political agenda dictated too much by a reactive populism.
But, this speech grappled constructively with Britain’s central dilemma which is how to remain an open enough society and economy, while showing greater respect for national social contracts especially in social security and social housing.
There were no great surprises—as expected he eschewed physical controls and caps, while focusing on the “fairness” aspect of free movement, in other words EU citizens like other immigrants will have to “earn” some of their social rights.
The four year wait for in-work benefits like tax credits was a bit longer than the two to three years that had been mooted by Open Europe (the key think tank in this debate) and others. But he made a sound case: an extra £8k a year for an EU citizen in a minimum wage job with two young children is a lot of money if you are coming from Bulgaria.
The unintended consequence of an employment policy designed to make work pay for British citizens, is helping make our labour market even more attractive than it already is to East Europeans.
What is being challenged is not so much freedom of movement but the principle of non-discrimination which means we cannot favour our own citizens in employment or welfare or anything much at all. It is putting certain aspects of social security and housing in the same box as voting in national elections—marked “priority national citizens”.
Cameron was addressing many different audiences, perhaps the most important being other EU leaders. He made a case for these reforms for the whole EU, while also implying in effect “If you don’t want this for yourselves please acknowledge that we are in some ways a special case.” In other words give us an “earned social security” opt out from the principle of non-discrimination.
Britain is indeed a special case for several reasons. We have a very open labour market, and an open and mainly non-contributory welfare system, unlike most others. We also have a rapidly growing population which will hit 70m in 2027.
One thing he might have said, and will presumably say in private to fellow leaders, is that we are also by a long way the EU state which offers the highest level of citizenship to outsiders—around 200,000 a year—nearly double the next country (Germany, which has 114 600).
Will his proposals actually reduce EU flows? Possibly, though bigger influences will be the economic progress in southern and Eastern European economies. The lack of most in and out work benefits for four years will materially alter incentives and may send a few more people to Germany rather than here— though the UK will remain attractively open with big diasporas already here and easy access to public services like schools and the NHS from day one.
The Prime Minister made a good case for what would be a significant reform, let’s just hope that the British government and civil service do a better job at winning supporters for these reforms than they have managed in recent years. In most cases the reform should only need a qualified majority, not as Cameron implied the unanimity demanded for a full treaty change.