We await Mr Cameron’s big speech on immigration, which was delayed until after Rochester. It is time to ask what could be achieved within the EU, or do we have to leave to get control of our borders back as some propose?
There is no inviolable principle which always takes precedence over a political deal in the EU. The famous four freedoms have still not resulted in free trade in services, where various member states still can and do impose barriers against service providers from outside their own country. The belief in keeping every country’s budget deficit down to a maximum of 3% has been more breached than observed in recent years. The original idea of keeping each country’s balance of payments in reasonable balance has been ignored throughout the EEC and EU’s life, with Germany allowed to build huge annual surpluses despite the impact this has on other countries. The free movement of capital was suspended when it suited them to do so for Cyprus, and Greece was allowed to go bust as a country when it could no longer meet the various budgetary and economic requirements. So we know that the EU does amend or suspend so called fundamental principles when politics requires it.
Successive UK governments always made clear we did not want to be part of a common borders system. We opted out of Schengen arrangements, and were told by the last Labour government that keeping control of our own borders was a red line which had been defended. Instead they signed up to a system which did take many of our powers of self government in this area away, without asking the permission of voters. That is why so many voters are unhappy today.
It seems likely that the UK can negotiate a better deal on benefit payments. Maybe the UK could within current rules switch to a UK system where people had to pay in – or be brought up and attend schools here – before being able to claim benefits. I have proposed such a means of tackling the immediate problem before. Maybe with German help the UK can get the EU to allow tougher rules preventing people coming here to seek work from qualifying at the same time for unemployment benefit or top up in work benefits. After all, the original idea was the free movement of workers, not the free movement of benefit seekers.
It is also the case that when the Eastern European countries joined the EU the EU itself proposed a longish transitional period during which citizens of those countries did not have free movement rights into the richer countries unless those countries accepted them. Only the UK under Labour declined to take advantage of the transitional block on migration from these countries.
If it was possible to suspend or deny free movement rights when the new countries joined, by definition the EU could suspend or modify free movement rights for other reasons. If, for example, the imbalance in wages and job opportunities is too great then there could be disproportionately large movements of people from the poorer or higher unemp0loyment areas to the more successful areas. This causes strains in both the country losing the people and the country gaining the people. The country losing may lose some of its brightest, best educated and energetic workers that they need to build their economy.The receiving economy may have to build too many new homes and public service facilities, putting too much strain on public service and infrastructure. It could be in everyone’s interest to have a system to limit or brake the numbers moving.
Of course many of you will say a simple exit from the EU is the quickest fix. That could be true if that is what the UK voters vote for. However, it will take both a Conservative government and a vote in the following referendum to get us out. Other potential governments of the UK would not dream of heading for the exit, nor will they give us a referendum. All political parties need to consider what they can negotiate inside the EU, and those contemplating out need to think about the reciprocal arrangements we will need outside the EU given the position of UK citizens in other EU countries. UKIP got into quite a muddle over this recently.