British prime minister David Cameron recently caused a furore when suggesting that in future, the immigration from poorer EU countries to the UK should be restricted, thus undermining and ignoring one of the fundamental EU principles – the free movement of workers. David Cameron also described the immigration from A8 (including Estonia) countries to the UK since 2004 as “a big mistake”. Adam Garrie argues why the prime minister is wrong on this.
David Cameron’s coalition government begun its life trying to be all things to all people and in the process has managed to disappoint and dissatisfy those on the left and right simultaneously. Recently, Cameron has been offering rhetoric on immigration seemingly designed to appeal to the readers of xenophobic newspapers in Britain. Not content with the fact that clever Indian students and wealthy Chinese businessmen have a harder time coming to Britain than to virtually any other European country, he has turned his attention to the freedom of movement enshrined in European law and woven this phenomenon into his immigration dialectic.
First of all, Cameron did everything he could to persuade his constituents he would limit the numbers of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens from exercising their right to freedom of movement throughout the EU in 2014, although no concrete proposals have been offered, not least because any such proposals would violate EU law. Now Cameron has said that freedom of movement should, in a British context, be limited to countries with a level of wealth similar to Britain. Such limits will almost certainly not happen. Proposals like these would violate the European law which is enshrined in the statute books of every EU member state. Secondly, businesses both big and small would never stand for such retrogressive practices in an age where business is digital and global. Finally, the logistical issues involved are enough to bring down even a popular British government let alone one as unpopular as Cameron’s.
“It’s about Estonian start-up entrepreneurs like the founders of the highly popular Transferwise being able to easily do business in London just as much as it’s about venture capital firms run by UK citizens being able to easily set up shop in Tallinn.
At root, freedom of movement, like free trade in a geographic region, is about cooperation. Over the last several years, for example, Estonian entrepreneurs have teamed up with the UK government in order to try to deliver to UK residents the e-services Estonia offers its residents. While Estonia is not nearly as wealthy as the UK, in e-services and education Estonia is currently leaps and bounds ahead of Britain. Likewise, in terms of international business contacts, London leads all of Europe as the city where above all others international business is conducted. If Estonia wants a more global outlook in terms of business and the UK would like better e-services in the public and private sectors as well as a more modern, technology-driven education sector, cooperation between the two countries is essential. But this cooperation is not only done at a governmental level. It’s about Estonian start-up entrepreneurs like the founders of the highly popular Transferwise being able to easily do business in London just as much as it’s about venture capital firms run by UK citizens being able to easily set up shop in Tallinn. If freedom of movement were limited, such things would simply not be practical and many of Europe’s best and brightest would turn elsewhere. Anglophiles would turn to the US and Canada. Russophiles would turn to Russia and others would look further afield to India, Japan and China.
“Does Cameron want the Europe of 1953 or is he prepared to accept the much more hopeful realities of 2013?
In terms of mutually enriching the UK and Estonian societies (let alone other European countries), Cameron’s proposals are a step back to a forgotten age of corrupt border guards, mountains of paperwork and a sense that both Britain and the rest of Europe are small players in a global economic game where America, Russia and Asian powers are the real players. Does Cameron want the Europe of 1953 or is he prepared to accept the much more hopeful realities of 2013?
Furthermore, Cameron’s stereotyping of European immigrants, and this is to say A8 (Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia – countries that joined the EU in 2004) European immigrants, as “benefit tourists” is not only deeply insulting but it is also deeply false. Most A8 immigrants (and I have a feeling I know more of these people than Mr Cameron does) come to work, not to scrounge. Many I have spoken too aren’t even aware of the benefits they are entitled to as they’re not entirely bothered with doing anything apart from working, socialising and getting on with the realities of life. And this is where a more radical proposal ought to come into force. In an ideal world the EU (as legally it is not up to any member state) would limit all state benefits other than emergency service to citizens. This would satisfy those who consider EU immigrants a strain on public services in Britain and perhaps more importantly it would expose many (although certainly not all) of those opposed to the EU freedom of movement as xenophobes rather than people simply counting the costs of state expenditure. Without wanting to demean many of the good services the NHS (National Health Service in the UK – Editor) provides, far from being benefit tourists, many EU immigrants prefer to return to their home countries for medical treatment as they believe medical services in their home countries to be better than the NHS. I have heard this from Estonians, Italians, French, Danes, Austrians and Poles. Perhaps they ought to be consulted as to why they feel this way if Cameron is seriously concerned with improving the NHS. If Europe would agree to remove the prospect of non-emergency benefits from workers exercising freedom of movement, it would help create clarity in a debate where genuine concerns are often found festering in a sea of racism and parochialism.
“Cameron’s stereotyping of European immigrants, and this is to say A8 European immigrants, as “benefit tourists” is not only deeply insulting but it is also deeply false.
What’s more is, I speak not as a europhile but an internationally minded eurosceptic. I am deeply alarmed at what I see as an attempt to put a pressure on Ukraine by the EU. I am also alarmed at an undemocratic single-minded European political agenda which doesn’t account for the desires of ordinary people. I think the EU’s restricting its member states from freely trading with non-EU members to be deeply myopic. Yet I feel that freedom of trade and freedom of movement within Europe has been an economic, cultural and social success story, one which indeed could have been accomplished without the Brussels bureaucracy. Norway, Iceland and Switzerland trade freely with the EU and EU citizens can live and work in Norway, Iceland and Switzerland with a greater ease than they can in Britain as the aforementioned countries are members of the Schengen area where Britain is not. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, this simply means British airports have long and off-putting border queues for arrivals from European airports where Norway, Iceland and Switzerland do not.
So while the issue is directly connected with the EU it also transcends the EU. I believe that Britain under a leadership more enlightened than that of David Cameron could function harmoniously with Europe without being in the EU. That being said, free trade and freedom of movement are absolutely essential for any country in a small geographic region of the world with an overall declining population. Having a British referendum on EU membership is democratic and sensible but putting people who have been living in Britain for 10 years in some cases, in a position where they are fearful for their future is not only undemocratic but it is deeply inhumane and also economically foolish. Britain and Estonia bookend Europe in many ways. Britain has problems accepting the European aspect of its history just as Estonia has problems accepting the Russian aspect of its history. In this sense both countries ought to have a slightly less restful and more open-minded perspective on the possibilities which are only possible through cooperation.
The opinions in this article are those of the author.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons.