28 Nov 2014

Cameron back from the brink on Europe and immigration

There was relief in the Foreign Office among EU country ambassadors as they gathered there to watch the TV kindly provided by Europe Minister David Lidington. Their leaders had been lobbying No. 10 for months to pull back from talk of a temporary cap or emergency brake on EU immigration into the UK. But for months that talk had carried on.

In fact, the emergency brake was still in drafts of the PM’s speech until the middle of this week. David Cameron would’ve risked a mighty bust-up with Europe and headlines warning that his renegotiation looked in danger of failing.

Instead, the EU ambassadors have been, as he might say, purring. Some say negotiating what appear to be discriminatory benefits changes for EU citizens will be extremely difficult. But they also say that’s a sight better, from their perspective, than a proposal that would’ve been non-negotiable.

The sigh of relief from EU ambassadors was matched by some in No. 10 and elsewhere in Whitehall. There had been profound concern that the PM was being a bit reckless, and he appears to have been pulled back by a concerted effort from the Treasury, senior officials, big business and pressure groups like Open Europe.

One of the dangers from David Cameron’s perspective is that EU partners might think he’s a bit of a pussycat in negotiations – talks tough, then folds before battle.

Mr Cameron’s allies say what actually happened was that the emergency brake looked less and less like a tool that would be guaranteed to do the job. Politically (presumably after focus-grouping it), it looked like it wasn’t a game-changer as it was so difficult to understand. And among business, already shelling out big sums to conduct their own polling on whether the UK might pull out of Europe, there was real concern – conveyed to the Treasury – that things were getting out of hand.

Britain's Prime Minister Cameron delivers a speech at JCB World Headquarters in Rocester, central England

At the JCB factory in Staffordshire where he made the speech, David Cameron was pretty emphatic that his benefit changes would definitely require a change to the EU treaties. That was a bit of a surprise to EU ambassadors who heard Europe Minister David Lidington say it wasn’t clear whether it would or not. Was David Cameron trying to get a negotiating ploy in place? Threaten EU countries with a new treaty nearly all of them dread because ratification is so hard to get, then trade the treaty demand for something else in the talks?

At one point David Cameron defiantly challenged Europe: “To those who claim change is impossible, I respond with the one word, the most powerful word in the English language. ‘Why?'” It sounded like a leftover from the draft speech that threatened bigger change. No-one said an emphatic no to David Cameron’s proposed benefit changes. They said these can be discussed.

What’s the actual impact of the in-work credit withdrawal? Toilers in these statistical fields bemoan the quality of data they have to work with, but both sides of the argument appear to be quite close to each other. At NIESR, Jonathan Portes, one-time chief economist at the DWP, says that only one in 10 of EU migrants qualifies for the withdrawal – i.e. is in the first few years of working in the UK and claiming tax credits. He says the total number potentially affected by the disincentives outlined today is around 50,000.

Open Europe, who pioneered an approach now (to varying degrees) adopted by Labour and the Tories, says the proportion of EU migrants affected is 17 per cent or so, and could amount to around 100,000 who are potentially disincentivised over a few years.

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5 reader comments

  1. Wouter says:

    In 2005 I was invited by a British university to do a part-time research PhD. I did my data gathering in the Netherlands (where I come from) and Belgium, and in 2010 I returned to the UK to complete my PhD.

    Back then nobody knew about it – and again I haven’t heard anybody mentioning this today – is that when you relocate from one EU state to another you are entitled to claim up to 3 months of unemployment benefit from the country where you come from. Also I haven’t heard anything about ‘unemployed EU migrants not being eligible for housing benefits’ in the first place, as I was told here in my city.

    The Catch-22 about migrating is that employers are not always willing to give you a job when you are still abroad, but you cannot afford migration unless you have a job. Simply putting a time frame for how long you have to find a job is rather arbitrary, shouldn’t it depend on the economic conditions of the time?

    How will universities still be able to convince EU-students it’s good to do their studies in the UK (it raises the university’s profile, and students do invest in the local economy) when the threat of deportation hangs above them as the Sword of Damocles? Chasing away students – prospective talents of innovation – is the UK’s loss.

    Alongside my PhD I did have various jobs, including jobs with contracts of ’10 hours per month + overtime’ and jobs that only exist a couple of weeks per year. In other words: I took on jobs to try to stay away from benefits, to show that I’m not a benefits tourist. When I took on volunteering, applying the Big Society in my life and expanding my skills, the JobCentre told me I shouldn’t do too much volunteering because that would be at the expense of the time I could use to look for work. In the end I did graduate with a PhD, I am still volunteering, I found a job and thus I’m contributing more to British society than the populist stereotype of ‘the migrant’ will ever acknowledge. Every year I perform Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance, and The Dambusters with my orchestra while the audience has a picnic in the gardens. How British do you want me to be?

    And this is where we really are: it is all window dressing. The Tories are running scared as they feel UKIP creeping up on them. David Cameron ignores the contribution employed and unemployed migrants make to the UK because that is the only response he has to UKIP’s polarising scaremongering.

  2. peter millar says:

    Cameron’s attitude to the European game is akin to a peeved football player on the substitutes’ bench shouting at his teammates and telling them what to do, then moaning afterwards why he never gets to play on the team and nobody talks to him in the dressing room.

  3. Tom MacFarlane says:

    Cameron is playing a very dangerous game if, as I believe, he actually wants Britain to remain a member of the EU.

    The EU is an easy target for criticism, but leaving it is likely to do much more harm than good.

    However, off the mainstream media’s rather myopic radar, the EU is negotiating a massive trade agreement with the US which, my local Tory MP tells me, is non-controversial, has all-party support, and will give a £10bn boost to trade. (Where that figure comes from I know not, but it is being repeated in other reports.)

    I find it hard to believe that Cameron is unaware of this, and even harder to believe he does not want in.

  4. Nick Hopkinson says:

    That no one has commented yet shows the Conservative and UKIP obsession with Europe and immigration is not shared by the population at large. Voters want politicians to address and resolve the issues that concern them, namely the crises in the cost of living, the NHS, education, transport etc., not some mythical crusade against some fictitious foreign enemy.

  5. David Woodhead says:

    Nick Hopkinson and others are right. It has been insufficiently noticed that support for the UK staying in the EU has, paradoxically, increased greatly at the same time as support has grown for Ukip. A recent poll showed 56% for staying in, 36% for getting out. Even 22% of Ukip voters favour staying in! The turnaround in public opinion has occurred since last year when companies large and small concertedly began to warn about the loss of jobs which exit would involve. So far as immigration is concerned, it is increasingly clear that Cameron no longer takes the precaution of engaging his brain before he speaks. A true leader who knows it’s in the UK’s interest to remain in the UK would not allow Ukip to hijack the immigration issue. He would point out, among other facts, the number of foreign students who are (absurdly) counted in the immigration figures (why are they still not separated?), that thousands of British expats returning home (e.g. from Spain) are also counted in them and that most immigrants over the past 15 years have come from outside the EU.

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