Leading UK politicians are big on scaremongering, whether over the so-called costs of Scottish independence (ultimately, for them) or hordes of Bulgarians and Romanians muscling their way to the front of welfare queues (in the end, a few dozen). But they are suspiciously shy when it comes to facing their opponents head-on – whether it’s Prime Minister David Cameron running scared of a television debate with First Minister Alex Salmond, or Ukip leader Nigel Farage slinking away on the immigration brouhaha.
The stooshie created in the British and German press this New Year over our eastern friends finally acquiring full rights under the European Union’s fundamental freedom of movement is a perfect case in point. The Home Office can’t even meet its own deadline to publish its long-flagged report expected to call for a two-year bar on benefits access for immigrants and ultimately a cap (“illegal” under EU norms, even the coalition deputy prime minister admits) on absolute numbers.
The response from Europe has been particularly firm: from Polish prime minister Donald Tusk filleting Mr Cameron over a proposed scrapping of the overseas payment of child benefit for the children of UK-based migrants, to the unusually tough resolution passed today in the European Parliament.
Our relationship with Poland – seen from Scotland and from Brussels – is close to my heart, having studied in Warsaw.
Mr Tusk’s reaction – and he is far from alone – simply demonstrates a wider and entirely natural reaction to the gratuitously boneheaded way in which UK ministers have engaged with the EU as an entity and the individual member states that comprise it. What goes for UK immigration rule-changes also goes for London demands on EU reform – an ongoing process (let’s not forget) that the UK did everything possible to undermine, viz Mr Cameron’s flounce out of summit talks.
Mr Cameron then went on to promise an in/out referendum on UK membership of the EU at a date he has not set, after an election he has not won, over a deal he has not secured, over a problem in the UK’s relationship with the EU he has not articulated.
The immigration rhetoric is just one particularly grubby expression of Westminster’s ideologically vacuous rearguard action and a failing attempt to placate the Eurosceptic beast led by Nigel Farage.
In exactly the same way as the Tea Party paralysed the US at federal level – not by being the government but by terrifying those who are – so Ukip is shifting the centre of gravity at Westminster in a decidedly poisonous direction.
The Labour Party seems to be adopting the self-same rhetoric: remember it was Gordon Brown who first adopted the odious phrase “British jobs for British workers”.
Experts feeding into Home Secretary Theresa May’s delayed policy report warned the UK government that immigration is, of course, “beneficial” to the UK economy (notably, the head of the Office of Budget Responsibility Robert Chote).
Reports tell how Bulgarians, Poles and Romanians are being put off the “racist” UK, with YouGov pollsters highlighting a gaping “gulf between perception and reality” with respondents assuming hundreds of thousands of “benefit tourists” are flooding the system, when the Department for Work and Pensions itself identifies 60,000 claimants out of some 2.3 million EU immigrants.
Migration is not a simplistic East-West wind: the latest full-year figures, for 2012, showed a net Polish migration outflow of fewer than 7,000 – as recession-battered Spain haemorrhaged more than 160,000 people.
The biggest magnets, by a considerable margin, were Germany and Italy, with Sweden proportionately a draw on a par with our wealthy non-EU neighbours of Norway and Switzerland. Europe understands that the fundamental freedom of movement principle imposes obligations as well as rights, on individuals as well as governments.
Safeguards are in place and the evidence overwhelmingly shows EU migrants to be more economically active, and less of a burden on national social security systems. Where hotspots of poverty migrants have clearly emerged, EU budgetary instruments specifically target what parliamentary colleagues acknowledge as real problems with smaller groups of very poor people, some Roma, in certain cities, for example in the German Ruhr.
European Commission president José Manuel Barroso warned in a speech to the parliament in Strasbourg this week to beware “narrow, chauvinistic” attitudes breeding “scaremongering and obfuscation”.
Thank goodness we in Scotland have a different attitude to the EU and to freedom of movement. In the European elections in May, we will be able to decide who speaks for us, and with the 18 September referendum, we’ll have the chance to speak for ourselves in full. In the meantime, if Mr Farage wants to debate the facts of immigration head on, I will be happy to give him that opportunity.
• Alyn Smith is the SNP MEP for Scotland