Peter Wilding is the Founder and Director of British Influence. This is the first of two articles – the second will be published tomorrow.
ConHome’s recent five cases for Brexit were all notable for one theme recurrence: numbers. In the first two, Lee Rotherham complained about the €220 million cost of the European Parliament and Paul Goodman lamented the 200,000 European workers who have migrated here. The others, discussed tomorrow, did the same.
But if this battle is going to be no more than long range statistical artillery fire, it will not only be a disservice to the importance of the debate but the public will switch off even before it’s begun. Oscar Wilde once said a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We all need to recognize that the referendum represents the first time the British people have ever been given a bespoke choice about the future path our country will take. It’s about values as well as numbers. It is what type of country you want your kids to inherit. And what type of role model you want your country to be. It is a daunting choice for most.
So what is the reason we Conservatives should argue to stay in?
I will give you five arguments in response to the five Brexiteers.
For today’s article, here are the first two:
1. For sovereigntists, this is a choice between real and imagined power. Lee Rotherham is convinced that Brussels is strangling Westminster, but it is more true to say that Westminster silences – even infantilises – its own MPs. It is the failure of MPs to exercise the powers already available to them that has reduced the UK’s ability to influence EU affairs. Denmark and the UK share similar positions on the EU – both have opt-outs from the Euro, for example – yet 56 per cent of Danes believe their voice is heard in the EU compared to 19 per cent of Brits. This difference is in large part due to the more proactive role Danish MPs’ play in EU scrutiny. They mandate their ministers, use the yellow card procedure, get stuck in. Here, while the scrutiny of the House of Lords is often seen as exemplary by other EU Member States, Agata Gostyńska in a recent report published by the Centre for European Reform drew attention to the failings of the Commons and the effect that this has had in reducing the effectiveness of MPs’ scrutiny of EU affairs. It’s no surprise. Downing Street, eager to avoid splits, even abolished the debates that used to precede the Prime Minister’s visits to Brussels, perpetuating the fallacy that Parliament no longer has any power vis-à-vis the EU. It does have powers but MPs fail to use them effectively.
Moreover, none of the alternatives to EU membership would reverse Lee’s democratic deficit. Joining the European Economic Area (EEA), for example, would leave the UK with no voice in crucial European decisions; Norway, an EEA member, has little impact on policy ultimately decided by the EU. One of Dan Hannan’s points – that Norway has led successfully in a number of ways on the world stage – is true yet this is an incredibly weak argument in favour of leaving the EU since Norwegian politicians themselves have said that it is better to be a member of the EU than being outside it. For example, Nikolai Astrup, Norwegian Conservative Party spokesperson for European affairs, has said: “If you want to run the EU, stay in the EU. If you want to be run by the EU, feel free to join us in the EEA.”
2. For social conservatives, this is a choice between throwing the baby out with the bathwater in order to stem EU migration or merely controlling it better. Plainly globalisation has unleashed greater population movements than at any time in history. But Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Romania and Sweden, as well as Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway – the European Free Trade Association countries – all have higher levels of migration than the UK. The EFTA countries have higher levels of immigration per head of population – 5.2 per cent in Iceland, 16.5 per cent in Liechtenstein, 5 per cent in Norway and 14.3 per cent in Switzerland – than the UK, with just 3.7 per cent.
EU migrants come here to work – not to claim benefits. They are 45 per cent less likely to receive benefits than British nationals. The UK Government’s independent Migration Advisory Committee has reported that EU nationals are less likely than British nationals to be in social housing. There is no evidence of discrimination in favour of EU migrants when social housing is granted. EU migrants in general pay more in tax than they claim in state assistance: for every pound they claim, EU migrants pay £1.34 in tax.
However, this mustn’t be about just numbers. Paul Goodman talks about migration being bad for Britain’s least skilled people. While the greatest impact on the British job market is in areas of the country where EU migrants have settled in large numbers, the jobs available are predominantly those in agriculture, food and hospitality that British-born people are reluctant to take. The answer surely lies in better education for British people. He also talks about migration putting pressure on public services and Brits wanting better immigration control. But he suggests that the free movement principle prevents this. This is false. He highlights the cynicism felt about British politicians’ willingness to provide a solution and this is where the problem lies (again, as with the sovereignty argument): British politicians not using the options available. Immigration can be controlled without leaving the EU and within the framework of free movement. Denmark, Finland and Germany all have systems that allow for this:
- Denmark – EU/EEA citizens register if they intend to stay longer than three months
- Finland – similar registration policy, collated with a centralised police database
- Germany – the Central Register for Foreigners
Of key importance is the fact that these systems, in monitoring where migrants entering the country, where they intend to settle, allows them to plan for additional public services. Far from the UK having a strict immigration system, it is, in fact, much laxer than most others in Europe.