I am pleased that my column on Britain and Europe today has attracted lots of hits and comments. But, inevitably, when you try to deal with such a complex subject in 900 words (give or take), there is a lot you have to leave out. And there was one vital part of the subject that I didn’t deal with – and that is the impact of immigration on the British debate on Europe.
When I try to work out why the British debate has taken such a radical turn, I come up with three main reasons. First, the euro crisis – which has damaged the image of the EU. Second, the fact that the Tories are now in power. Large parts of the party have been spoiling for a fight on Europe, ever since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. They wanted a referendum on the euro and then on the EU constitution – and were denied twice. Now, they are utterly determined to get their vote.
But I think the biggest reason of all, is the surge of immigration into Britain, following the addition of 10 new countries into the EU in 2004. It is widely thought that upto 1m Poles moved to Britain. (At a recent seminar in Poland, I asked the locals if anybody disputed the figure, and nobody did).
I’m one of those middle-class Brits who think the Poles have been absolutely model immigrants. They seem to be largely well-educated and to have a great work ethic. In my bit of London, you find young Poles behind the counter in the bank, on building sites, serving in cafes, even dishing out parking tickets (which is perhaps not the best way to court popularity, but there you go.) The Polish church is full to overflowing, there are lots of Polish kids in the local primary school and the local shops stock an interesting range of new food.
On the other hand, I’m not competing with new immigrants for a building contract or (any longer) for a space for my kids in the best local schools. Talk to politicians, and you will find that “immigration” comes up a lot among voters. Even if the Poles and the other Central Europeans are very far from the image of dole-queue scroungers, there are a great many of them.
Unfortunately, immigration has also become the perfect symbol of what “loss of sovereignty” actually means. In reality, not very many Brits spend time worrying about the fact that the EU sets some of our social legislation. That’s a fairly abstract concern. But immigration is something people notice, and talk about. And average voters are not terribly impressed when their politicians tell them – truthfully – that EU law means that Britain could not actually close our borders to EU migrants, even if we wanted to. After all, one of the basic attributes of a nation is commonly thought to be the control of borders. It is a shock to discover that that no longer applies for Britain – no matter how many impressive looking signs saying “British border”, the government puts up.
The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is making hay with this, in particular the fact that there will be complete free movement from Romania and Bulgaria from the beginning of next year. Many analysts reckon that immigration is now a more potent argument for UKIP than Europe. But I think that is a misunderstanding. It is the fusion of the European and immigration issues that is so potent. Indeed, if Britain does end up leaving the EU, I think the surge of immigration that followed EU enlargement may be a big part of the story. That would be ironic, given that the UK government did so much to promote enlargement.
So what, if anything, can David Cameron do – in his famous renegotiation? Not that much. Free movement of people is one of the four basic freedoms of the European Union and it will be virtually impossible (as well as undesirable) to repeal it. What the Brits may be able to do is to write new rules that make it much harder for migrants to access the welfare system. This should not be of much concern to the young Poles, all of whom seem to work. But it might do something to reassure British voters. And it also a shared concern with France and Germany, who might be amenable to drafting new rules on the subject.