Battling for Benefit

Sheila Lawlor

Friday 29th November 2013: Britain’s battle with Brussels is not just over who pays for indigent immigrants. It is a battle about two views of the state, writes Sheila Lawlor.

Many English people watching the latest battle with the EU may be asking how will it develop? The Prime Minister and an EU Commissioner have clashed over benefits for immigrants. Will Westminster or Brussels decide the rules for new EU immigrants arriving after January 2014 – the date when Romanians and Bulgarians are entitled to work and draw benefit here?

The Prime Minister has announced his intention to withdraw their automatic right to some entitlements. They may not, he says, draw unemployment benefit during the first three months; after that the benefit will be limited to a maximum of six months; and those in work and on income support may be subject to an earnings threshold. The message is that Britain is not a soft touch for benefit tourists and all the major parties endorse it. Westminster’s political elites recognize that voters are no longer happy with what EU membership now brings. However the EU Commissioner for Employment, Laszlo Andor, an alumnus of the Karl Marx University of Economic Sciences, sees it differently. He wishes to treat the UK as being in violation of treaty law and aims to re-educate us, insisting that the country has gained fiscally and economically from the free movement of labour.

On treaty law, Mr Andor has a point at least in theory. Britain has signed up to the free movement of people and labour and EU citizens are entitled to the benefit regimes of the host country. But it is precisely with this theoretical notion that voters both here and across the continent have difficulty. In Britain, the preference is for a looser relationship with the EU, so that the UK and other European countries can form a ‘common market’ or ‘wider Europe’ and just that. By contrast, Mr Andor and his fellow officials see the EU as moving inevitably to further and deeper integration, a goal which they believe is needed more than ever, especially since the Eurozone crises. To the current arrangements and treaties obliging common citizenship rights, a common labour market, a common ‘social’ Europe, and a common constitution, is now to be added a common fiscal and economic policy.

The battle is not just over who pays for indigent immigrants. It is a battle of two views of the state. Voters in Britain, except for those on the hardened left, have never preferred theoretical internationalism with its collective ‘solidarity’ and the bureaucratic and intrusive officialdom it spawns, to more direct, more practical, local rule. The fate of the first 20th century Labour Government was sealed at the Royal Albert Hall when the whiff of international socialism ruffled Britain’s own Labour movement. In 1924 a Conservative leader told his audience in the Royal Albert Hall that he had not come to promise heaven on earth. He understood then what Mr Andor does not understand today. English voters did not want heaven tomorrow, but the opportunity to make their way on this earth today.

Britain’s vision remains, not that of an abstract state, based on a theoretical premises, but one chastened by hard economic realities of jobs often lost, old people who cannot afford to retire, young ones who cannot find jobs, and inflation swallowing up pay packets. All of these hard truths have been the reality for British working people, whatever their social background or education, whatever the government of the day may tell them. To the European Union’s officials the conclusions to which such truths point may not matter, may seem irrelevant to treaty law. But mistrust of the EU is now widespread in all its founder countries and has grown significantly in the last five years. Unlike the EU Commissioners, voters recognise the constraints and realities of a competitive global market, in which jobs and livelihoods are at a premium and depend on whether goods and services can compete with those from countries with smaller states and lower tax burdens: not just the emerging Asian economies, but also other western economies with lower and leaner public spending such as Australia and Canada (around 36 and 44 per cent GDP) and Switzerland (around 34 per cent), a European country which none the less has enviable education and health-care systems.

So today, as voters grit their teeth and reluctantly recognise that Britain’s unsustainable deficit and public spending must be cut, there is no desire to open a new spending front to facilitate a new internationalism. Our own politicians, whatever their party, have begun to understand what Mr Andor and his colleagues refuse to do: he should therefore expect the same fate as his alma mater and the system that sustained it.

*Sheila Lawlor is Director of Politeia