Tom Richmond, a researcher at the Social Market
Foundation think-tank and a columnist for Tory Radio, explains why the EU matters to the public more than they realise. The Lisbon Treaty was signed a month ago today.

If a week is a long time in politics then a month must be an eternity, and as we pass the one-month anniversary of the Lisbon Treaty being ratified by Parliament, the newspaper headlines have long forgotten the backlash from the public and the appalling breach of trust that saw Labour and the Liberal Democrats break their manifesto pledge on a referendum.  With the newspapers losing interest, the Lisbon Treaty having passed through the Commons and polls suggesting that only 3% of voters consider the EU to be an ‘important issue’, the obvious conclusion to reach is that the EU will not be a key battleground in the run-up to the next election – or will it?

According to an Ipsos MORI poll from February of this year, the seven most important issues facing this country are:

1. Crime / law and order;
2. Race relations / immigration;
3. The NHS;
4. The economy;
5. Education and schools;
6. Defence / terrorism;
7. Housing. 

For the sake of comparison, the EU is in 18th place, below petrol prices and the minimum wage.  Needless to say policymakers will be tempted to focus on the top items in the list, but this would ignore the reality of domestic and European politics.  Even though the public might not proclaim any great interest in the EU, Britain’s relationship with the EU remains the biggest debate of our generation as it feeds into virtually every policy debate. 

On crime and defence (numbers one and six in the list respectively),
the inability to control our borders thanks to the EU has made us more
vulnerable to criminal behaviour and terrorist activity than ever
before.  Reports of an increasing number of murders and arrests related
to foreign criminals are deeply troubling, and the lack of a
Europe-wide agreement on sharing information means that we genuinely
have no idea whether European criminals are living in this country.
Furthermore, Britain’s decision in 2003 to stop sex offenders
travelling abroad was not imitated by other European nations – some of
which don’t even have sex offender registers.  Add to this our failure
to deport many foreign criminals, alarming levels of human trafficking
and the ease of transporting illegal drugs when you have open borders
within the EU, and the problems become even more serious.

On immigration (number two on the list), the lack of restrictions on
movement is viewed positively by the government but the figures do not
support their rhetoric.  In fairness, there is little hard evidence on
the impact of immigration at a neighbourhood and community level.
Nonetheless, almost 250,000 people moved to the UK from the EU in 2006
and claiming that such a rapid influx of EU citizens does not adversely
affect community and race relations is laughable.  The NHS (number
three) does not record the nationality of those who receive treatment,
but again it is absurd to argue that the NHS will not have been
hampered by having to deal with the rising demand.  It is worth
entertaining the possibility that the increase in hospital waiting
lists under Labour may be related at some level to immigration.   

Schools (number five) have been feeling the strain of immigration for
years with Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association
of Headteachers, saying that “there is a feeling among some of our
members that this is out of control and unpredictable”.  Let us not
forget the abuse of the benefit system as well – Philip Hammond MP
pointed out last year that 14,000 migrants from new EU member states
were claiming benefits for children who did not even live in Britain.
In addition to this, the pressure on housing (number seven) will be
immense if the predicted arrival of six million migrants by 2031 –
albeit from around the globe – is anywhere near the mark.

Just a few days ago, the House of Lords delivered a damning verdict of
the economic benefits of our immigration policy (number four).  The
government’s claim that GDP has risen by £6 billion thanks to migrant
workers deliberately sidesteps the more effective measure of GDP per
capita – which shows a negligible and possibly negative effect of
immigration on the UK.  New measures to curb immigration from non-EU
countries is a sensible strategy, although the Lisbon Treaty hints at
the desire to develop ‘common policies’ for asylum and immigration,
potentially robbing the UK of this scheme in future.

In essence, the low position of the EU in the list of voter concerns
reflects two things: firstly, the Ipsos MORI poll asked about the
importance of the ‘Common Market / EU / Europe / EURO’, thereby mixing
a range of essentially detached questions; and secondly, the EU is
continually treated as a solitary matter instead of being discussed in
terms of its relationship with other policy areas.  So why do
politicians not introduce the EU into debates on immigration, crime,
education etc?  The Conservative Party has an uncomfortable history
with the EU over the past decade and David Cameron must be desperate to
avoid getting dragged into an internal struggle on this divisive
subject.  Perhaps the sensitive and complicated nature of the debate
also makes politicians wary of becoming embroiled in a slanging match
that inevitably raises some very tough questions.   

Even if politicians would rather keep the debate over our membership of
the EU at arms length, the list of concerns held by voters show that it
is a debate that must be had.  It doesn’t matter if you worship the EU
as an institution or would rather see the UK leave the EU altogether –
the relevance of the EU is inescapable.