Wednesday, 17 February 2016

So it all comes down to that?

In Britain, we’re moving closer to what will certainly be a historic decision for the nation: a referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union.

Such a lot is riding on it. Should Britain remain part of the world’s largest trading block, with all the clout that provides, but at the cost of the reduction in sovereignty it implies? Or should it leave, on the grounds that it would be better off maintaining its freedom of action, knowing that it can arrange more advantageous arrangements for itself in bilateral negotiations with individual other nations?

These are momentous matters, and they deserve to be treated with seriousness.

Even among supporters of continued membership, there is a broad consensus that much is wrong with the EU. In particular, a great many people feel that the right to free movement of labour has opened British borders to too many immigrants, and there’s a general suspicion that many of them arrive to take advantage of the British benefit system – even though it’s far from the most generous in Europe.

The concern about immigration is strongest on the right, but many on the left have taken it up on the basis that they ought to reflect the views of their electors, even if they don’t share them. Since the EU guarantees freedom of movement, the EU debate therefore focuses increasingly on the question of immigration. That means that the other issues, of national sovereignty or whether human rights and democracy are best defended inside or outside, become far less prominent.

Cameron with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council
The negotiations continue. But make little progress
Unfortunately, in his attempt to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the EU and persuade sceptical voters that he has improved them sufficiently to justify a vote to stay in, David Cameron has run into a brick wall on the right to free movement of citizens throughout the Union. It’s viewed as a fundamental right, and to be defended above all in a structure that guarantees freedom of movement to goods and capital – if they can move freely, why not people too?

So instead Cameron has been striving to have benefits rules changed, on the basis that if immigrant rights to benefits can be reduced, then immigration itself will fall. So, the Cameron argument runs, if we obtain agreement from the EU to let us reduce benefits for migrants, then it will be possible to persuade sceptical voters to back continued membership.

As a result, from being concerned with the great and lofty question of Britain’s position in the world, the EU debate has focused more and more on immigrant access to benefit payments. All in the hope that if the British government can win back the authority to cut them for EU migrants, it will win round voters unconvinced that the price of high immigration levels is worth paying for EU membership.

Even that is proving difficult for David Cameron to achieve in his negotiations. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, and ostensibly a Conservative ally of Cameron’s though also a contender to replace him as leader, is refusing to come out unequivocally in favour of the EU and is calling on the Prime Minister to come up with a better deal for Britain.

But Cameron has little to play with, and is scrabbling for a few more concessions as the time to finalise the deal approaches. The latest point of contention is the refusal of a group of four nations, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, to go along with Cameron’s demand for the right to cut British child benefit payments to immigrants whose children are living abroad.

Migration Watch, the leading anti-immigrant organisation, calculates the value of those payments as £55 million a year. “£1m a week,” as the organisation proclaims in tones of horror.

For the current financial year, the government deficit is projected to be £69billion. Or £1.3 billion a week. Well over a thousand times more.

And on that figure, a thousand times smaller, the future of Britain in the EU and the world may hang?

It’s never a bad thing to give the last word to Benjamin Franklin, so let’s.

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

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