The recent debate around EU migration has sadly descended into scaremongering. This is an important topic and it deserves to be debated properly. First to put it into context, research published in December finds that free movement across Europe is still the most popular achievement of the EU. A report by the University College of London found that EU migrants made a net contribution of £22.1 billion to the UK economy between 2001 and 2011, and are significantly less likely to access benefits or healthcare than British citizens. Last week it was reported that Cameron had shelved a government report into migration because the facts were too positive. And of course, hundreds of thousands of Brits use their right to live, work, study and retire elsewhere in the EU.
But when I talk to people on the doorstep it is clear that they do have concerns. It’s not that people are against migration itself, rather they worry that someone will be willing to do their job for less, undercutting their pay and conditions. We have to recognise and deal with these concerns, by putting strong social protections in place. The UK government should be strictly enforcing the minimum wage, and encouraging companies to train their employees. And at European level we must revise the posted workers directive to ensure that companies bringing in migrant workers employ them on the same conditions as domestic workers. The agency workers directive also needs to be strengthened and properly applied in the UK, to ensure that agency workers cannot be exploited by companies, and be employed for less than permanent staff.
Whilst David Cameron might be interested in monopolising on populist myths around EU migration, he has no intention of addressing any of these legitimate concerns. In fact his vision of the European Union would be a businessman’s club without any social protections in place. When Cameron talks of ‘EU reform’ what he means is scrapping EU rights at work, from maternity leave to paid holidays, limits on working hours to protections for agency workers. Without these rights upheld across Europe unscrupulous employers would be free to hire the cheapest possible labour, on the worst possible terms. This would drive down pay and conditions for British workers, and exploit migrant workers willing to work for less. It is a race to the bottom.
The truth is Cameron is scared of UKIP, as well as his own Tory Eurosceptic backbenchers. In an attempt to appease some elements of his party and stop the surge to UKIP Cameron has managed to offend and alienate hardworking migrants, business leaders, his coalition partners and worryingly, traditional British allies such as Poland. This is not the way to deliver reform in Europe.
The answer to making freedom of movement in the EU work for everybody isn’t to limit people’s working rights, but to strengthen them. With high standards of social protection across Europe we can stop undercutting and exploitation, and go back to being the Britain that welcomes migrants, and recognises the contribution they make to our country. Freedom of movement is a fundamental principle of the EU, and we have to ensure that another fundamental principle is fairness for all.