As I mentioned in a prior article around Christmas there was an explosion of stories in the right wing press about the impending invasion and take-over of the UK supposedly by Romanian immigrants. Of course, inevitably nothing of the sort has happened, current count is 30 new immigrants…hardly the tens of thousands the tabloids suggested were waiting for January the 1st).
However that hasnt stopped the Tories from using this as an excuse to gut the welfare budget and begin reneging on its commitments to provide reciprocal welfare rights to EU citizens (for which in turn the other EU states do the same for other UK citizens, e.g. those living in Germany or retiree’s in Spain or Portugal for example). Recently the Tories have made further cuts which suggest they will only pay out for 6 months after which presumably said EU citizen can live on the street or rob or steal, oh and no housing benefits.
Of course there are three problems with these policies, firstly as noted, they are shadow boxing a phantom threat as there is no evidence what so ever to suggest that benefits tourism is a major cost to the taxpayer.
Secondly, they are opening a massive can of worms. The vast majority of EU migrants to the UK are here to work, during which they will pay National Insurance, i.e. they are in effect paying for services which you are now denying them. No doubt some crafty lawyer will be in a position to sue the government and some EU citizens shall be seeking a rebate on our NI contributions in the future (no point in paying for something you cant use!). And if say, the Romanian government, is now expected to cover the welfare costs of its citizens working in the UK, shouldnt they be getting said tax instead of the UK government?
Indeed its worth noting that there already exists a number of links between the UK and Irish benefits system. With the result that if I, say, go home to Ireland and apply for benefits there, the first thing the Irish government does (once they see Ive worked in the UK) is check Im not claiming benefits in the UK, then ask the UK government for my NI contributions. If I transfer to the UK and do the opposite (e.g. move to UK and retire), then the UK government gets my NI contributions in Ireland to help cover my benefits costs in the UK.
Of course if this were to occur for the rest of Europe, i.e. immigrants effectively stop paying NI related taxes in the country (or the UK being forced to hand over said contributions to other EU governments), that would leave the UK government with a large pension black hole which it has no means to fix.
Thirdly, this has annoyed many other EU states, notably the Germans. If the UK wants to see reform or harmonisation of welfare systems across the EU (which would go along way to addressing their fears) theyll need the likes of the Germans onside.
And they should also be making new allies in Eastern Europe, not enemies. Many of the new EU states in the East are under the control of fairly conservative minded, and in some cases euro-skeptic, governments. However instead of praise for Tory policy we heard calls for a boycott of UK goods from officials in Poland, indicating that patience with the UK is wearing thin as a result of the recent outpouring of bigotry and racism against Eastern Europeans.
This should all be very worrying for anyone in the Tory party. The Poles carry a lot of weight in Europe these days. Eastern Europe has more votes in the EU parliament and many other EU institutions than Germany or France. The Tory plan, if they win the next general election (god forbid), is to go to Brussels and ask for a renegotiation of Britains membership of the EU. Ive previously discussed the impracticality of this policy, but at least its better than the one pursued by UKIP (currently in trouble over claims by one member of the party that recent flooding is the cause of gay marriage), i.e. the tidy disillusion of the United Kingdom.
However to even have a chance of the Tory policy succeeding they will need allies in the EU. Similarly, the UKIP policy (if we could dignify it as a policy) will only work if they can get a free trade agreement with the EU. Again such a treaty would have to be negotiated, and that also means having allies in the EU…oh! and the likely terms of such a deal would be a no quibble acceptance of all EU trade rules for which the UK will have no say in the setting of and will have to pay for the enforcement of (as the Norwegians already do).
So needless to say, what the Tories are all but guaranteeing is that when the time comes for said negotiations they will not be given priority nor taken seriously by the rest of the EU, likely drag on for so long that it will be well into the proceeding parliament before anything happens. Or indeed that the EU, incensed by recent Tory policy, will just turn them down flat and basically put it to the UK that they can either put up or get out…then imply they might be slow to getting around to a free trade pact (or that the UK will have to except that financial transaction tax the French are looking for).
Indeed I found it amusing a few weeks ago when the government claimed it had responded to jitters it had heard from the markets as regards to the financial implications of Scottish independence. Well why arent they responding to similar jitters regarding speculation on their policies towards the EU?
Recently the IMECHE journal did an opinion poll on Europe. Now we engineers have a reputation for being a fairly conservative bunch of people, but the poll showed support for the EU will into the 70%s and any talk of leaving in the 20%s. Why? Because most engineers realise the impact any thought of leaving the EU would have on trade, as Ive previously highlighted.
And any time the Tories have received the opinion of foreign governments (such as Japan or the US) on such talk of leaving the EU it hasnt been terribly positive, more along the lines of are ye mad or wha?
And speaking of Scotland there are a number of unforeseen consequences of the present Tory/UKIP policies towards Europe with regard to the Scottish Question. The No camp in the Scottish referendum have been claiming that the best way of guaranteeing continued Scottish membership of the EU is to vote No. Alistair Darling has been going around saying that if your pro-European vote no.
However, this doesnt account for the implications of a in or out referendum in the UK on Europe. The possibility is that the UK will be forced out of the EU and the Scottish who tend to be less prone to euro-scepticism than English, (as Nigel Farage discovered a few months back!) could be dragged kicking and screaming out of the EU.
If this is indeed the case that Scotland might be forced out of the EU by events down south, then clearly if youre pro-EU the best advice would be vote yes. While this might lead to a temporary period outside the EU. But as I discuss in a prior post any Scottish independence bid will see some transitionary period, probably taking a lot longer than the SNP are bargaining for, plenty of time to re-gain EU membership assuming the English dont do the Scots a favour, vote to leave the EU in the next parliament and see the EU offer Scotland its seat.
Alternatively one could argue that any EU referendum in the UK should be held regionally, with the option for said region to remain in the EU and leave the UK if one or more other regions choose to leave. Of course this raises the risk of a sort of double jeopardy option for the Tories in Scotland.
And Scotland isnt the region of the UK Im particularly worried about. No, what about Northern Ireland? Of all the UK regions Northern Ireland, which as a deprived area, receives considerable structural funds from Brussels and shares a land border with a Eurozone country, would lose out more than any other to a UK withdrawal from the EU.
And of course the economy of NI is growing after decades in the doldrums during the troubles due to the peace brought on by the Good Friday agreement. However, there seems to be the implicit assumption in the fine print of the Good Friday agreement that the UK and Ireland will both remain EU members (open borders, right to abode either side of the border for Irish & British, close economic ties, etc). Thus it will likely have to be renegotiated, and that opens a whole can of worms.
Irish Republicans have an old saying that goes Englands difficulty is Irelands opportunity i.e. Sinn Fein will almost certainly use any sort of referendum on the UKs EU membership, to make their long cherished bid for a united Ireland.
Now while at the moment youd struggle to get a majority either side of the border (even in the Republic!) to vote in favour of such a move. However put such a vote it in the context that many worry that the UK leaving the EU will cost them their job, And it looking likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to colour in the map as it were. Then there is, I would argue, at least a 50/50 chance that Northern Ireland leaves the UK.
Ultimately all the Tories are doing is succeeding in playing a very silly game of how to loose friends and alienate people. And the price the UK could well pay for their Tory/UKIP obsessions over Europe is the UK itself.