Tuesday 31 December 2013

Free Movement Night's Eve?

"Who cheats, flies", runs the campaign of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria. Fear of an influx of Romanians and Bulgarians seems to be at fever pitch, with Tory activists in the UK petitioning the Prime Minister to use an emergency clause to limit immigration and the new CSU campaign, which has angered its coalition partners (the CSU is part of Merkel's governing coalition). From tomorrow, the transitional restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens from enjoying the full rights of EU citizenship will expire and they will be able to work across the EU under the same conditions as other citizens.

Counter arguments, that Germany and others benefit from migration, that migrants contribute more than they receive in benefits and that the freedom of movement is a two-way street, don't seem to have broken through. However that doesn't mean that anti-immigration arguments and rhetoric are necessarily well-received. The "Go Home" campaign piloted in Britain - where a van pulling a billboard urged illegal immigrants to contact the Home Office and "go home" - was a laughing stock, with people cheekily trying to use the contact number to ask the Home Office to arrange for their trip home across London. Similarly, the "Who cheats, flies" - Wer betruegt, der fliegt! - campaign was mercilessly ridiculed online, with pictures of prominent CSU ministers on planes appearing under the slogan.

And a recent poll in Britain suggests that integration rather than immigration is the crux of the concern, with a majority of people accepting of immigration if people play by the rules. This is probably why the clumsy attempts to tar groups of immigrants - actual or potential - with the same brush has struck such a hollow ring with people. In this day and age scapegoating a group of people is simply not acceptable. The concern is more over pressure on the welfare state, public services and integration into the local community. These are issues - and it's sad that evidence of migrants' contributions haven't had much traction yet - and they also seem to be tied up with the wider debate over the welfare state and who deserves help: the old concept of the deserving poor.

The image of people flying in just to cheat the system may be ridiculous, but in tougher economic times there is a fear of cheaters. Announcements to reduce and cut away at the welfare state are not just about austerity, but also tinged with suspicions that some are milking the system, even as demand for charitable services like food banks rise. But as the welfare system is made tougher, it's made tougher on everyone... The political battles over immigration and welfare will continue into the new year, with parties bidding to be tougher on immigrants and welfare "scroungers". Past experience with populist campaigns may have jaded the public to these stunts, but we are drifting towards a tougher society.

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