Why the focus on migrants’ benefits?

Difficulties in securing a deal on Cameron’s EU proposals, widely reported today, were predictable as soon as Cameron added the subject of EU migrants’ benefits to his list of demands.

This issue didn’t feature in his original Bloomberg speech, where he first set out his intention to reform the European Union and hold a referendum. It’s been added under pressure from his right-wing eurosceptics.

Objectively, it is not at all justified by the facts. After all, EU migrants pay one third more in tax than they take out on benefits and services added together. EU migrants — that is, those EU citizens who move to the UK under the Europe-wide reciprocal agreement about freedom of movement — are not a drain on the exchequer.

In any case, recent European court rulings have confirmed that governments are under no obligation to give out-of-work benefits to anyone who has moved to a country simply to take advantage of those benefits. So much for the so-called “benefit tourists” — and, in any case, it is actually hard to find evidence of any significant number of these.

But Cameron’s insistence on making this an issue, and applying restrictions also to in-work benefits, including tax credits, has made this highly problematic to negotiate. This is because it would mean that a Brit, a Pole and Irishman working on the same job at the same workplace, and paid the same salary, will end up having different levels of remuneration depending on what nationality they hold. This is blatant discrimination on the grounds of nationality — a fundamental principle that we and all other EU countries agreed to make illegal in the EU treaties. The fundamental principle is one on which Brits abroad, employed or running a small business, rely to avoid being discriminated against in European markets.

Eurosceptic attempts to conflate this issue in the public mind with the very different issues of refugees and economic migrants from outside the EU make it difficult for Cameron to back down. But the suggestion that nationals from other EU countries should be discriminated against makes it difficult for those countries’ leaders to accept a British derogation from the wider principle.

Cameron has painted himself into a corner. This contrived issue jeopardises his whole strategy and puts at risk Britain’s future as a member of the EU.

“To have brought the whole future of our relationship with the European Union down to this one issue shows that the prime minister, I think, is missing the big picture.”
Hilary Benn, Shadow Foreign Secretary

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