Monday, 13 January 2014

No Free Movement Rights for the Working Class?

The debate over the free movement of people is continuing to grow. It's worth remembering that EU citizens currently have the right to reside in another Member State for 3 months to look for work, with no obligation on the host Member State to provide benefits (Citizen's Directive, PDF). They can stay longer than 3 months if they are employed, self-employed, or have the resources to support themselves. When they're a worker (an employee), then they have access to the same social and tax advantages as the host country's nationals (Directive 1612/68).

In the UK, some Tories are calling for a 2 year period before EU citizens will have access to the welfare system. That's 2 years of living, working and contributing in a country without being able to draw on the same support open to other citizens. Given that so many supported by the welfare system are in work (an indication of how wages have stagnated and the worrying necessity to support those in work to ensure that they can actually make a living), such a long period would greatly disadvantage poorer people from exercising their Treaty rights in practice.

Labour appears to be thinking of controlling intra-EU migration for the skill levels of the migrant, as Chuka Umunna said on the BBC's Question Time last Thursday:

"Umunna said the EU should change its rules to prevent citizens from travelling to other member states in search of work, with a focus on banning highly skilled workers from less affluent EU members taking low-skilled jobs in richer member states.
He said this would revive the spirit of the EU's founding fathers, who wanted to encourage freedom of movement for highly skilled workers to highly skilled jobs."

I'm not sure what founding father he's talking about; he didn't quote any and I can't remember any famous quotes about Europe only being for graduates. Labour's position is very confusing. They seem to be talking about preventing movement to other countries to find work (so you'd already need to have a job before you move), preventing highly skilled workers from the new accession countries from taking lower-skilled jobs in the older Member States (which sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare to define and enforce, never mind getting all the Member States to sign off on it), and limiting the free movement rights to the highly skilled.

This last point, which seems to be the most likely, is an odd position for the Labour party. So the highly skilled (presumably also those from more privileged backgrounds) should have these rights but the less well skilled shouldn't (which is hard to define and probably just means "poor")? It's a sad state of affairs when the Labour party is for disenfranchising the poor in Europe rather than opening up more opportunity and creating work and security...

Even the Liberal Democrats have voiced support for limited access to benefits. Perhaps someone can explain the electoral rationale behind this move, because I can't see it. Nobody who wants a tough stance on immigration is going to vote for the Lib Dems over the Tories because of this. The net result is that there's no real political voice that is speaking out in defence of free movement rights.

It's widely reported, and accepted by supporters for tougher immigration controls such as Migration Watch, that EEA migrants claim less than locals, and contribute more to society and the economy than they receive in social welfare. The political weather has changed so much that even the politicians that make this argument are supporting a dilution of free movement rights. This political cowardice just lets the panic over immigration to grow. Without dissenting voices, the political culture as a whole shifts in an ever more anti-immigrant direction - you could say that it's a microcosm of the overall EU debate in the UK.

Political attitudes of the CSU in Germany are also hardening on this, though opinion polls suggest that a majority thinks that Germany has benefited from immigration and that it has benefited from EU membership overall.

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