While the columns in newspapers criticising Cameron’s referendum commitment continue to be written, I nevertheless have a nagging fear – that while Cameron’s strategy may be ill-advised, the main pro-EU party in the UK, Labour, has nothing really to say about the EU than to defend the status quo. This is not going to be enough for the battles to come.
Thanks to numerous replies on Twitter I was directed to a couple of recent speeches – by Douglas Alexander and Emma Reynolds, and an interview with Jonathan Powell. These are all rather normal UK-EU fare, liberally sprinkled with phrases about reform.
But the alarm bells really started to ring when reading Douglas Alexander’s words on pages 10 and 11 of his speech about migration within the EU. Some of his words (although I advise reading his words in full in the original document):
We all hear about the perceived strain that certain aspects of the EU are putting on some local communities here in the UK. For many, this relates specifically to the operation of the Free Movement Directive. [...] Enlargement brings enlarged freedom of movement, which underpins the many benefits of the single market but also creates certain pressures.
Labour has recently recognized these pressures in a way we haven’t in the past. Back in June Ed Miliband set out the new approach we would need in this area. Labour has already set out that it regrets not implementing the full transitional arrangements that were available to it during the last round of EU enlargement and would do differently now. We believe the EU should look to go further than that and look at ways of giving member states more flexibility over the transitional arrangements that they sign up to – both to relax them more when those countries see fit, but also to include the possibility of tightening them further if necessary.
First of all, there is a grain of truth in here – that there were pressures on the UK, especially between 2004 and 2007 or so. This was because only 3 countries – the UK, Ireland and Sweden – opened their borders to workers from the new Member States. Also it’s worth recalling that the population of the countries that joined in 2004 totalled 75 million people, more that have ever joined in one go before. Further, the way the UK state dealt with the consequences then (and indeed, still) could have been better – new migrants produce babies, and the UK state has not been able to organise its schools to cope. But of course it is easier for Alexander to direct his fire at the migrants themselves.
By 2007 a lesson had already been partially been learned – with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria (total population about 29 million), transition arrangements were put in place in the UK in the same way as across the rest of the EU. The likely impact will hence be limited when these restrictions end next year (see The Guardian, and Commission analysis of this), and Romanians and Bulgarians will be able to move anywhere in the other 25 Member States, not just 3 countries. 2004 it is not.
Looking further into the future, what enlargement is there in the pipeline? Croatia (pop. 4.2 million), Iceland (pop. 320000), Macedonia (pop. 2.0 million) – nothing close to the scale of 2004. Yes, there is the theoretical issue of Turkey, but with Erdogan leading Turkey further away from the EU (calling for the death penalty!) this is so far away as surely to not constitute a worry for the moment.
So instead Douglas Alexander, rather than banging on about this issue, could essentially close the issue down and stop talking about this stuff: the lessons have been learnt. The EU will not enlarge in a big bang enlargement again. Migration restrictions will not be lifted together with only 2 other countries again. The enlargements on the horizon are countries so small that the impact will not be noticeable in the UK.
Why then, does he keep banging on about this issue, and Ed Miliband has also mentioned it. Time for that approach to stop.