The Conservative Party have been making a lot of noise about free movement of labour recently, saying they want to reform the rules in the face of ‘public concern’ (i.e. increased support for UKIP). Nigel Farage, champion of the ‘People’s Army’ says the Tories will just look to tinker around the edges, but will not be able to alter the fundamental principal of free movement. I agree with Nigel!
I saw Iain Duncan Smith quoted today as saying there was consensus within Europe to limit access to benefits for EU migrants. This is where I suspect the tinkering will be focused. They will make a big deal out of this and come back from the negotiations with the EU triumphant about the concessions they have secured. The thing is though, if they do manage to tighten up access to benefits, nothing will really have changed.
Moving to a new country for the purposes of claiming benefits has been labelled ‘benefit tourism’. But does it actually exist? This article from last year concludes there is very little evidence for it, and that the primary reasons for moving are for work or family reasons. The benefits that EU migrants would be eligible for are anyway extremely limited and it the person is not working, they probably won’t be eligible to benefits either. If they can’t or won;t find a job, they could even be legally removed under EU law. This blog gives quite a good summary of the situation.
So it seems likely, the Tories are looking to achieve only as much as they think they can spin into a victory, which may be little more than applying existing EU law more rigidly. Not sure that is going to convince the Kippers to come home.
What is the real issue with free movement then? It’s the ‘unlimited’ part that’s the problem. Within the restriction that people coming here must be looking to work, there is no limit on the number of people from the EU who can come here. If we were in a situation where every economy in Europe was booming, this may not be an issue as most people will be able to find work in their home country. Sadly this has not been the case in Europe for some time, and leads to a situation where people seek to move from the austerity-ravaged economies of the Eurozone, to the less ravaged (and now growing) UK.
This is not to say immigration is bad. It’s not. Allowing unlimited numbers of EU migrants to come here for work just doesn’t seem sensible. What’s wrong with using a similar system to Australia or Canada, or indeed the system we have for non-EU migrants? The Tories will never make this demand of the EU. I don’t think that’s even what they want. To get some control back would mean leaving the EU, or coming up with some clever ruse to achieve the same result.