Brian Monteith: Cameron’s EU political pantomime

Prime Minister is asking all the wrong questions for all the wrong reasons, argues Brian Monteith

David Cameron's talk of reform in the EU is not backed up by the necessary treaty changes needed to underwrite them. Picture: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty
David Cameron's talk of reform in the EU is not backed up by the necessary treaty changes needed to underwrite them. Picture: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty

The Prime Minister is attempting to solve the wrong problem.

It was all too predictable and it has been seen through for the political fudge it is. The Prime Minister has had his sham negotiation and his manufactured row in Brussels. Now we await his supreme political achievement of a great compromise to be hammered out after much blood, sweat and tears are expended at the next European Council in February. If it goes according to plan the EU referendum will be set for June on the basis that it will be reformed to our benefit and therefore worth remaining members.

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This political pantomime would be laughable if it were not so important to the future of the country. Even if the Prime Minister were to achieve all four of his demands, or indeed 24, it would count for nothing in the absence of amendment to the existing treaties that would enshrine any agreement in law. In the absence of such treaty change, we will be left with meaningless platitudes and empty assurances that the European Court of Justice can and will strike down until nothing resembling reform can be identified.

This duplicitous process has already made worthless assurances given in the past to Britain and other countries such as Denmark – and will be repeated if we do not heed those warnings

The game of charades is itself bad enough but made worse by our Prime Minister conflating perceived injustices about EU migrants abusing welfare benefits with the need to manage the total number of migrants coming to our shores. The truth is that immigrants come to the UK for a better life and this manifests itself in many ways – but living off benefits is not the chief reason. What draws people is the wage rates comparative to their home countries, our relative freedom and liberty, the security of our rule of law and the moral ethos that makes the UK a generally civilised and desirable society to live in.

Where the UK’s welfare state is important to migrants is in access to the NHS, schools and housing, the cost of which is generally unquantified and where real pressures exist – but which David Cameron has no proposals to tackle. That would require limiting freedom of movement within the EU and that has already been ruled out by EU leaders such as Angela Merkel.

In the past year the number of net migrants coming from non-EU countries is 52 per cent of the total at 210,000 but is carefully controlled. The number of net migrants from the EU is 48 per cent of the total at 170,000 – but is open-ended and will remain so. Fiddling around with benefits will not resolve the problems being created by the scale of admissions.

In the last ten years some 1.07 million EU migrants have settled in the UK – equivalent to a new city the size of Birmingham being created from scratch. In the past five years we have received 651,000 EU migrants – the equivalent to creating a new city larger than Glasgow.

Particularly acute is the demand in housing where the National Housing Federation estimated 974,000 new homes were needed between 2011 and 2014 but only 457,490 were built. The federation estimates 245,000 new homes are needed a year in England alone with the government target of 200,000 per year falling short of that. The impact on house prices can only go one way.

Two revelations have appeared this week to highlight the irrelevance of the Prime Minister’s claims about the need to deal with benefit claims by migrants.

Firstly the Bank of England published a report that argued wage rates in low-paid jobs have been cut by as much as 2 per cent as a result of migration. Internal EU wage differentials, where minimum hourly rates can be six times higher in the UK, attract migrant workers irrespective of benefits. Ironically the government’s drive to create a higher living wage only adds to the UK’s attractiveness.

Then the news broke that the UK government had refused a Freedom of Information request by Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist to the Cabinet Office, on the true level of EU workers in the UK.

Official figures for migration over the past four years, compiled using the International Passenger Survey, claim that 751,000 EU migrants came to Britain.

Given that only 65 per cent of EU migrants come to work and the next largest group are those here to study, the number of National Insurance requests should be less than half a million. Yet over the same period the Department for Work and Pensions has issued 1.9 million NI numbers to EU migrants. Porter wanted to know how many of those NI numbers were “live”.

The two figures do not tally and suggest that the number of EU workers in the UK could be at least two and a half times previously thought. An inquiry, chaired by Michael Fallon when in opposition, condemned the international passenger survey as “not fit for purpose, having been designed to provide data for tourism and business travel purposes”.

Both developments suggest our politicians do not know what is truly happening in migration and would prefer to discuss the issue on false and emotional pretexts that undermine rational and careful consideration about how to provide for public services by adjusting supply and catering adequately for demand. Regaining control of economic migration will not be a panacea but will need to be accompanied by better planning to accommodate the current migration levels.

The justification for leaving or remaining in the European Union should not rest solely on the issue of controlling the UK’s borders, but by failing to acknowledge the real problems that our economic success is creating, the Prime Minister and his Europhile fellow travellers are turning it into the issue that is beginning to matter most to people. Possibly those concerned about immigration will in time become the majority.

Polling tells us that for the UK to remain a member of the EU, the British people need to see genuine reform – but the Prime Minister has yet to ask for it, never mind negotiate it. If border control cannot be returned to member states the EU could find more than just Britain beginning to question membership.