A few days ago the Prime Minister published an op-ed in the Financial Times (paywall) on the back of Government musings about placing restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants to the UK once the partial ban on these two most recent EU members expires on January 1. I don’t subscribe to the FT, so what I know of it I’ve read about second hand or heard on Radio 4 that morning.
The FT piece offers the more fundamental proposals (as quoted in this Guardian piece):
“Cameron also called for a wider settlement on the free movement of workers, an issue that is bound to feature in any Conservative renegotiation of British EU membership.
In an article for the Financial Times, Cameron writes: “We need to face the fact that free movement has become a trigger for vast population movements caused by huge disparities in income. That is extracting talent out of countries that need to retain their best people and placing pressure on communities.
“It is time for a new settlement which recognises that free movement is a central principle of the EU, but it cannot be a completely unqualified one.
This suggests that the free movement of labor in the European Union needs to be restricted, which undermines one of the cardinal principles of the EU itself. Fundamentally, it likewise affords capital a greater advantage over labor. Capital is free to move within (and beyond) the EU, but labor, on the other hand, must be further constrained.
While it’s easy to fall into the trap of that simplistic cynical analysis (and I do to a degree), taken together, the benefits restrictions proposed for Romanians and Bulgarians combined with the proposal to restrict and re-negotiate British membership in the EU is more about domestic politics. The Tories are wary of the electoral threat posed by UKIP to their right. I think these fears are overstated for a variety of reasons which I don’t have the time to get into (but hope to soon), but while this poll of a seat UKIP covets does not make good reading for the Conservatives, the general election is still about a year and a half away, and responding to a poll that far in advance declaring support for a marginal party with no history of winning seats in Parliament is different than maintaining that view a month prior to the election, or actually making that decision on election day.
The Liberal Democrats equivocate on the policy, Labour suggests the Government is panicking, and it’s quite possibly illegal under European law regardless. Not surprisingly, the British are more concerned about the tsunami of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria than peer states, and the Adam Smith Institute (with such a name one has a pretty good idea about their inclinations) argues that for a pile of reasons we shouldn’t fear immigration from these member states, most tellingly that immigrants from EU members states are less likely to claim benefits from the government, including NHS services, than native Britons.
Of course, the humorous bit in this story is how Cameron argues that the EU needs to restrict the free movement of labor within the EU because of the drain on talent in the Bulgarias of the world, suggesting these are the best, brightest, most enterprising and skilled, yet stokes the fears that these talented go-getters are coming here simply to live off of our generous welfare state.
If you’re going to make a bad argument berift of empirical support, at least make sure your bad argument is internally consistent.