28 November 2014

Parties need joint ‘British position’ to reform EU free movement

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The Prime Minister has this morning given the speech of a man who intends to stay in the European Union. He will need to cooperate not just with EU governments but also with his political opponents at home on establishing a shared ‘British position’ on free movement reforms to achieve his goals, writes Sunder Katwala.

There are three big clues in the positioning and content of the David Cameron’s proposals that this was a ‘stay in’ speech, rather more than one directing Britain slowly towards the exit.

Firstly, he makes clear that he supports the principle of free movement, for workers, and presents his proposals as ways to manage free movement within that.

“People want grip. I get that…They don’t want limitless immigration and they don’t want no immigration. They want controlled immigration. And they are right … Britain supports the principle of freedom of movement of workers. Accepting the principle of free movement of workers is a key to being part of the single market. So we do not want to destroy that principle or turn it on its head. But freedom of movement has never been an unqualified right, and we now need to allow it to operate on a more sustainable basis in the light of the experience of recent years”.

Other EU member governments will welcome that clear statement.

Secondly, the Prime Minister’s focus is very clearly on welfare, rather than on numbers. This was the key to attempting achievable reforms.

David Cameron did say that he would like to cut the number of migrants from the EU, but he sets out that what he will insist on is some changes and limits on the timing of welfare access – and he makes no promise about the impact his proposals will have on numbers.

“My objective is simple: to make our immigration system fairer and reduce the current exceptionally high level of migration from within the EU into the UK. We intend to cut migration from within Europe by dealing with abuse; restricting the ability of migrants to stay here without a job; and reducing the incentives for lower paid, lower skilled workers to come here in the first place”, he will say. But the key point is that he says that “”the British people need to know that changes to welfare to cut EU migration will be an absolute requirement in the renegotiation”

There is no proposal for quotas on workers within the European Union. There is no proposal for an ’emergency brake’ or ceiling if migration levels rose sharply, which will disappoint some critics.

Chancellor George Osborne has been extremely quiet in the public debate about immigration, but has been an extremely influential voice in favour of free movement behind the scenes. The challenge this represents to the Conservatives is that, for their public arguments to reflect their policy, both the case made by the Chancellor for the benefits of migration and that made by the Home Secretary for control and managing the pressures need to be heard. A balanced public argument needs to be about both the pressures and the benefits, as our new ‘How to Talk About Immigration‘ sets out.

The proposals can deal with public concerns about fairness and contribution. Since both liberal and sceptical groups agree, most migrants come to work,  the new measures may well have limited effects on numbers, yet they could prove important in the public politics nonetheless. Pro-EU voices who argue that the proposals will have limited practical impact might ask themselves whether that is really, politically, a reason to rail against them.

So Cameron’s speech suggests that the big lesson of the failed net migration target – make promises that you can keep – may be sinking in, though the government is, even after yesterday’s figures, still struggling to admit that the target is as dead as the famous Monty Python parrot. It is now an ex-target and something else is needed. What goes in the next Conservative manifesto on a target remains a blank page. Certainly, if the EU proposals were used to suggest the current target was still worth another crack in the next Parliament, it would be a recipe for repeated failure and deepening mistrust, though the Prime Minister dropped a couple of hints today about an exit strategy from this failed policy.

Thirdly, the Prime Minister’s position, if negotiations were to fail is put no more strongly than ruling nothing out.  “If you elect me as Prime Minister in May, I will negotiate to reform the European Union, and Britain’s relationship with it. This issue of free movement will be a key part of that negotiation. If I succeed, I will, as I have said, campaign to keep this country in a reformed EU. If our concerns fall on deaf ears and we cannot put our relationship with the EU on a better footing, then of course I rule nothing out. But I am confident that, with goodwill and understanding, we can and will succeed”, he said.

Those headlines saying that is a threat to campaign for an Out vote are slightly over-egging the pudding.

How far does the speech address the free movement conundrum which the Prime Minister faced?

He had to square the circle of proposing reforms which are substantive enough to secure political and public support for continued membership, while achievable with Britain’s EU partners.

The proposals will not please everybody. Nothing ever could – on the question of Europe or immigration. So UKIP will certainly still say it is necessary to leave the EU. Those who are certain to vote UKIP won’t trust that David Cameron will deliver. The most Eurosceptic backbenchers will be disappointed by the lack of quotas or an emergency break – but this group contains many who would prefer renegotiation to fail, so that Owen Paterson’s proposals for an exit gain broader support. The Prime Minister needed to convince those who share his own view, that Britain is better off in, if reform can be achieved.

If the political reaction will be predictably mixed, it is very likely that the changes proposed today would be broadly popular, if achieved, and it is likely that they would be popular enough to secure the broad majority of those who would prefer to stay in a reformed EU,

There is good evidence for that in the British Social Attitudes survey, which asks people how long it should be before EU migrants have full and equal access to all aspects of the British welfare system.

Strikingly, only 18 per cent think that period should be as long as five years, while the ‘moderate majority’ think up to three years is right, and a significant minority of 37 per cent favour limits of one year (23 per cent) or immediate access (14 per cent).

The Prime Minister’s proposal of a four year wait are tougher than public attitudes. If David Cameron may have to compromise on his specific proposals – and a two to three year waiting period could in fact fit public intuitions more strongly than a four or five year period.

Whether the changes are achievable or not are a matter of debate. The Open Europe think-tank, which has had an important influence on the Cameron speech, believes the changes proposed can be achieved without Treaty changes. But other voices believe that the in-work benefits changes do need Treaty reform, a case set out in detail by Professor Steve Peers. However, there is also a commitment from European governments, particularly Germany, to help to broker an achievable deal.

There will be debate too about whether they are desirable, particularly among the strongly pro-European minority of Britons who support the principle of free movement. If support can be secured by reform, but there is a much more even chance of an exit without it, this is a political judgement about how best to protect a principle in practice, and where the boundary lies in conceding too much. Where does the boundary lie in reform saving free movement or sacrificing it?

All three major political parties are, in essence, offering very similar ideas about the reform of free movement – all promoting some time-limits to welfare access, and none promoting quotas or numerical curbs.

It is in the nature of party politics that each leader will want to say that they have a plan to deliver reform, while their opponents will fail. This, however, is implausible.

Labour’s Rachel Reeves tweeted last night that ‘A week and a half after my announcements for Labour on migrant benefits Cameron searches for something to say’.

Freud would have called this the ‘narcissism of minor differences’.  No doubt Conservative voters will stress the partisan differences too, over either the detail of the proposals, or the strategies for making change happen.

But is it really in the political interests to compete to exaggerate their differences on free movement in that way?

If there is a Conservative plan, a Labour plan and a Liberal Democrat plan for the reforms which Britain is seeking, then this increases the chances of failing to secure support for any of these plans.  That would be good news for ‘out’ and UKIP – and bad news for all of the leaders and parties who are trying to stay in.

Disagreement on immigration can be a good and natural thing: people have different views about it, and so do the political parties.

However, given the degree of overlap between the parties on EU free movement reform and benefits, what would make sense would be to agree a common UK negotiating position on free movement, with the broadest possible support across the political spectrum.

We have just seen the Scottish parties bridge significantly wider differences over devolution to negotiate a shared proposal. It is more important, in a multi-national political negotiation, to achieve a common British position, so that the parties to use their specific networks within the different European governments and political families of the left, right and centre.

The Labour party should support the Prime Minister in his aim of securing reforms which are compatible with British membership, and appoint a senior former Cabinet member, such as Alan Johnson or David Blunkett, who could work with Downing Street to build support on the European centre-left, among social democratic parties and trade unions.

Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister has a different reach to David Cameron among EU governments, and his Financial Times piece this week again signalled support for what David Cameron has said today.

The test for the reforms set out by any of the parties is now whether they can secure sufficient support across the EU to make them a reality. They will have to cooperate as well as compete to make that happen.  And the public might prefer that to a political squabble about who is really able to pursue British interests.

Putting country before party to make reform happen might well be more popular with the electorate too.


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