The EU principle is quite clear. EU citizens are entitled to work in any other EU country and enjoy the same working rights as the nationals of that country. Those rights will vary EU country to country. But that isn’t the point.
The point is that if I go and work in France, as an EU citizen I can expect the same rights as French workers there. If I go and work in Germany, I can expect the same working rights as Germans. If I live in Spain, I’ll have the same rights as Spanish workers. That’s the EU principle, and I believe it’s a good one.
And this affects many Britons; more than two million have moved to live in the rest of the EU. Not all of them for work, of course; but most of them.
The concept of ‘free movement of people’ would fall down if workers moving from one EU country to another were discriminated against and didn’t have equal working rights with the workers of the host country.
I don’t think it’s a difficult concept to grasp. But it seems to me that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, simply didn’t understand this principle, until now.
One of the key reforms that Mr Cameron hoped to win from the European Union was to allow workers moving to the UK from the rest of the EU to have less rights than British workers.
If this was to be permitted, it would in my view undo the entire raison d’être of free movement of people. The domino effect of such a policy could mean the end of EU workers willingly and easily moving from one EU country to another.
If Britain could discriminate against Germans working in Britain, then of course it could mean British workers in Germany having less rights than German workers; and British workers in France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Belgium and so on being similarly discriminated against.
And what would be the point? I can’t find any.
Mr Cameron’s great reform idea was to discriminate against workers from the rest of EU by barring them from claiming any benefits for the first four years of their residency in the UK. That would be inequitable because British workers don’t have the same restrictions on claiming benefits.
Is there a real problem of EU workers claiming benefits? Not according to economist Jonathan Portes in his excellent blog yesterday for the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
As Mr Portes points out, EU migrants come to Britain primarily to work, and their employment rates are considerably higher than that of the native population or non-EU migrants.
Only 2.2% of welfare claimants in Britain are EU migrants – just 114,000 out of a total of just over 5 million benefit claimants.
The situation is somewhat different regarding tax credits – or ‘in work’ benefits for migrants, that Mr Cameron has described as the main problem. EU migrants make up around 7% of those claiming tax credits, so about proportionate to the numbers of EU migrants working here.
But is this actually a problem? Not really, states Mr Portes.
“People who are in work, even in low-paid jobs, are after all contributing to the economy in a variety of ways; most analysis suggests that EU migrants, overall, improve the fiscal position, both in the short and (more importantly) in the long run.”
Mr Cameron often argues that it’s unfair for EU migrants to arrive in the UK, start a job, and immediately begin to receive public funds in the form of tax credits, having made absolutely no prior contributions. But the situation is exactly the same for British citizens, who can start a job for the first time and immediately claim in-work benefits. .
It’s the same for all insurance-based systems. You could insure your home today, paying just the first month’s premium, and if your home burnt down tomorrow, you’d still get a pay-out, even though you hardly made any contributions.
Child benefit is also often cited by Mr Cameron as a problem because EU migrants here can claim benefits for children not even living in the UK. That, of course, was never the intention of the child benefit system.
However, as Mr Portes points out, “the parent(s) are working and paying tax here (by no means true of all UK parents) and the children are certainly overall less of a cost to UK taxpayers than if they were actually living here!”
Mr Cameron has stated that he wants to reduce EU migrants coming to Britain (I can’t imagine why, since most of them are in gainful employment and making a significant net contribution to the Treasury and Britain’s wealth).
But is our benefits system really a ‘pull factor’ for EU migrants coming to Britain in the first place? The evidence is that welfare systems don’t generally drive immigration, according to Mr Portes. Nobody from Eastern or Central Europe comes to Britain to claim benefits; they come here for employment.
When the European Commission asked the British government for evidence of so-called ‘benefit tourism’, three times the government failed to provide any.
According to Mr Cameron, however, “40% of all recent European Economic Area migrants are supported by the UK benefits system.” But the data to back up the Prime Minister’s claim has never been published; almost certainly a violation of the Code of Practice on official government statistics.
The government’s numbers “look very odd” according to Mr Portes. According to published research, only a very small number of EU migrants would be affected by Mr Cameron’s 4-year-ban-on-benefits, because most EU migrants claiming the benefit have already lived in the UK for more than four years.
The four-year-ban, since it would affect such a small number of EU migrants, would be unlikely to make any difference to the numbers of migrants coming here.
So why did Mr Cameron want to risk Britain leaving the EU for a problem that doesn’t exist, and a solution that would make no difference?
Yesterday’s front page of the Evening Standard stated, “Cameron ‘retreat’ over EU migrant benefits”. It appears that the Prime Minister has now acknowledged that he cannot, after all, secure a four-year ban on welfare benefits to EU citizens exercising their right to work in Britain.”
Mr Cameron was quoted as saying, “Now I understand how difficult some of these welfare issues are for other member states.”
Isn’t it a bit late for Mr Cameron to “understand”? Shouldn’t he “understand” the issues first, and how important or otherwise they are, before risking the country’s future membership of the EU on demands that he should have known are incompatible with the principles and function of the European Union?
I am not confident that our Prime Minister knows what he is doing. It could be his, and the country’s, undoing.
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Related stories by Jon Danzig:
- Why is Britain so against migration?
- Fiddling whilst the rest of the world burns?
- The end of free movement to and from Europe?
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