World View: Cameron’s pleading on migrants opens pandora’s box

UK’s dubious case may lead to other member states moving to curb migrant rights

David Cameron: The erosion of the principle of free movement and equal treatment of EU citizens is the price we are being asked to pay to keep the UK in the EU. Photograph: Mathias Loevgreen Bojesen/Scanpix

David Cameron: The erosion of the principle of free movement and equal treatment of EU citizens is the price we are being asked to pay to keep the UK in the EU. Photograph: Mathias Loevgreen Bojesen/Scanpix

 

The proposed agreement between the UK and the EU to avert Brexit is smoke and mirrors, largely spin. It is a cynical political deal all to do with getting David Cameron off the hook, and little to do with solving real or imaginary problems. Not least the “exceptional” challenge of the UK’s migrant problem.

But, such is our Government’s concern about Brexit, that we will almost certainly hold our noses and vote the deal through.

Take Cameron’s repeated insistence on exempting the UK from treaty commitments to “ever closer union”, and his boast of a concession on the issue. As the draft proposed by council president Donald Tusk points out, the treaty text was never any more than an aspiration. Although the Tusk document refers to the imperative for “further deepening” of integration, “references in the treaties and their preambles to the process of creating an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe are primarily intended to signal that the union’s aim is to promote trust and understanding among peoples living in open and democratic societies sharing a common heritage of universal values. They are not an equivalent to the objective of political integration.” Or to a legal obligation, although the UK will sign up to a commitment to “not create obstacles to but facilitate such further deepening”.

Some hope, given UK form . . . but, there, that was easy!

As was the competitiveness commitment. It might have been taken from the conclusions of any summit in the last 15 years.

More worrying and consequential is the most contentious provision, to restrict EU migrants’ benefits, particularly in-work benefits such as income support. States will be able to seek permission from their fellow member states to exclude migrants temporarily from some benefits in “situations of inflow of workers from other member states of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time”.

Done deal

To make Cameron’s selling job yet easier, the commission will also issue the following extraordinary clarification to make clear that UK derogation is actually a done deal: “The commission promises a safeguard mechanism with the understanding that it can and will be used and therefore will act as a solution to the United Kingdom’s concerns about the exceptional inflow of workers from elsewhere in the European Union that it has seen over the last years.

“The European Commission considers that the kind of information provided to it by the United Kingdom shows the type of exceptional situation that the proposed safeguard mechanism is intended to cover exists in the United Kingdom today. Accordingly, the United Kingdom would be justified in triggering the mechanism in the full expectation of obtaining approval.”

Deeply dubious

We do not know what “kind of information” the UK has provided but the suggestion there is really an “exceptional” situation which threatens the fundamentals of its benefits system is deeply dubious. Studies over the last few years show, contrary to widespread popular belief, that EU migrants to the UK are significant net fiscal contributors to the economy – ie they pay more in taxes than they draw from the system in benefits or services such as health and education. Most EU migrants come to work, and do so.

Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini put the positive contribution of EU/EEA recent migrants to the UK from 2001 to 2011 at about £4.9 billion (€6.4 billion). The OECD reports that cross-country evidence for the years 2007-2009 suggests the fiscal impact of overall migration to the UK (+0.46 per cent of gross domestic product) is close to the average, and was more positive than that in 12 other EU member states including France, Germany and Ireland. The net fiscal cost to Ireland of migrants in the same period is put at 0.23 per cent of GDP.

Even NGO Migration Watch, a group hostile to migration, calculates the net fiscal cost of migrants at an annual £0.25 billion, in UK terms a hardly exceptionally burdensome figure. As the OECD observes the “overall fiscal impact of immigration in most countries tends to be small”.

Cameron’s dubious special pleading also opens the possibility of other member states moving to curb migrant rights, not least because the working definition of “exceptional” appears loose. Ireland, for example, appears to be able to make a yet stronger case for such a derogation, but it is to be hoped that this is not a road Minister for Finance Michael Noonan will want to go down.

The erosion of the principle of free movement and equal treatment of EU citizens is the price we are being asked to pay to keep the UK in the EU. Some might say – perhaps the Poles at the council meeting in a fortnight – that the price is too high.

psmyth@irishtimes.com

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