Claude Moraes MEP argues the Left must take on the EU free movement critics
In the last issue of Chartist Pete Rowlands argued persuasively why the Left needed to campaign against Brexit and for a reformed EU alongside parties and groups in the EU with a similar outlook.
In his many arguments, he did not discuss free movement, one of the key issues in any referendum on our membership of the EU and the subject of Cameron’s recent speech (on 28 November) which he used to build support among his Eurosceptics and a Eurosceptic British press that he was serious about EU reform ahead of any such referendum. Placing free movement ahead of any other EU issue as a negotiating subject puts this issue in the sights of the Left as well, and we must have a positive narrative on it or face deeply negative consequences.
Much has been written in Chartist making the positive case for migration, including excellent articles by Don Flynn. Now as we approach the 2015 general election, it seems clear that the conflation between migration and the EU debate will be a dominant theme.
Clear and unambiguous
We must be clear and unambiguous that free movement of labour underpinned by the best possible national employment conditions and rules is a good thing. British workers can enjoy this fundamental freedom of EU membership, just as many workers from other EU member states can work here in the UK.
On the Left it is now accepted that as part of a strong narrative in support of free movement, it should be part of a labour market with an enforced minimum wage (and living wage) and key safeguards brought with the regulation of employment agencies and those wider protections introduced with the revision of the Posted Workers Directive. More widely it is also accepted that good integration measures and attention to key issues such as housing in areas of high migration make sense to prevent ‘social dumping’.
However, none of us need reminding that this aspect of migration to the UK has taken on disproportionate significance in our politics. UKIP has fuelled a relentlessly negative view of free movement and at times it has created almost a consensus that it has been bad for the UK.
So David Cameron made it the centrepiece of his EU reform speech last month. However, what was striking about the speech was that it completely abandoned the much trailed idea of ’emergency breaks’ on free movement to the UK from other EU countries or as the tabloids called it ‘quotas’. Essentially this was because ’emergency breaks’ as trailed would be outside EU free movement law and highly unlikely to be accepted by our EU partners.
The ‘Dano case’
So the narrative has now become one firmly relating to free movement and access to welfare and benefits. He particularly seized on an important European Court of Justice case in Germany last month – the ‘Dano case’ that ruled that two Romanian nationals could legitimately be denied the right to claim benefits in Germany designed to cover the recipients’ subsistence. A job centre in Leipzig had denied these on the grounds that the claimants had not worked and had not been seeking work.
A first response from the Left on free movement and benefits is to be clear that we do not allow the Right to dictate a hopelessly distorted view of its impact on the UK.
A stark example of this was the Telegraph and Mail claims at the end of last year that ‘an EU study had found 600,000 unemployed migrants living in the UK at the cost of £1.5bn to the NHS alone’. (October 2013). They found a politician – Douglas Carswell MP to take the figures at face value. As it now famously turns out, the figure included children, students, pensioners and those with caring responsibilities, which puts this inflammatory figure in a different perspective.
Has free movement and migration brought a net economic benefit to the UK? The recent UCL study said an emphatic yes, but what is not in dispute is that on every key indicator workers exercising their free movement rights in the UK have a substantially lower draw on the state than UK citizens. The ‘non-activity’ rate among EU nationals in the UK is 30 per cent compared to 43 per cent for UK nationals and unemployment rates are much lower. In fact, mobile EU citizens are less likely to receive in work benefits in every EU country they work in.
As for the explosive NHS claims, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research says that as far as the NHS is concerned all the studies, as opposed to the tabloid stories, EU migrants, like migrants in general, pay in more than they take out.
In responding to what is now an attack on free movement by linking it closely to the idea that EU workers take benefits, we must exercise care. It is vital to have rules that are clear and transparent to the people we represent. Years of denigration and misrepresentation of the EU in the press have led people to believe that anything linked to the EU is bound to be negative, wasteful and detrimental to national interest. It is our job to state the facts on free movement and benefits and to ensure fairness in the debate. When making decisions on changes we should communicate clearly the positive benefits of free movement, not just here in the EU, but what British workers gain in other EU countries. If we do not build this case we leave UKIP free to dominate the political landscape with fear and distortions, instead of a reasoned and balanced debate on this sensitive and central issue.
This article appeared in the new issue of CHARTIST