Article by Brian Hayes MEP which appeared in the Irish Independent on Thursday 30th October 2014
The recent use of highly-charged language such as “swamped” and “under siege” by British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon when talking about immigration is another indication that the issue is now a hot-button topic in British politics. Even the Labour Party leadership has requested all of its MPs to hold public meetings in their constituencies on the issue.
Immigration has also become conflated with deepening anti-EU sentiment, particularly in England. The recent bust-up over Britain’s contribution to the EU budget could not have come at a worse time for British Prime Minister David Cameron and for the Conservative Party. For UKIP leader Nigel Farage and his party, on the other hand, the bust-up is political manna from heaven.
UKIP has the Conservative Party on the run. A crucial by-election will take place in Rochester and Strood on November 20. Mark Reckless – who defected from the Tories to UKIP – is now a strong favourite to win. If he does there is a real possibility that more Conservative MPs will defect to UKIP before the May 2015 general election.
An opinion poll published on October 28 showed UKIP on 19pc, with both the Conservatives and the Labour Party on 30pc each. UKIP’s ambition – to hold the balance of power after the next election – is now beginning to appear a real possibility. There are some ironies in the British government’s difficulties with the EU on immigration and Britain’s budget contribution. As regards Britain’s budget contribution the recent request for an extra once-off contribution of €2.1 billion came as result of the British Office of National Statistics retrospectively increasing the size of the British economy. Each country’s contribution to the EU is related to the size of its economy. However, there is no getting away from the fact that €2.1 billion is a large sum of money. Both France and Germany will receive a rebate under the revised budgetary rules, which made the issue all the more politically difficult for Mr Cameron.
Much of the anti-migrant coverage in the British media is focused on migration from the 10 EU countries which joined in 2004 and Bulgaria and Romania, which joined in 2007. Britain was enthusiastic in its support for EU expansion into Eastern Europe and – unlike some other EU countries – placed no restrictions on migrants from the 10 countries that joined in 2004.
In retrospect the decision to put no restrictions in place in 2004 was probably unwise. Certainly, high levels of migration have contributed to suppressing wage levels among low-income workers, as well as putting pressure on education and social services in some English towns. Conflict in Syria and Libya and other North African and Middle Eastern countries has resulted in an increased flow of refugees into the EU.
Some of those refugees do eventually make their way to Britain. And, of course, England – as distinct from the rest of the UK – is a densely-populated country; within the EU only Malta has a higher population density. If the Republic of Ireland had a population density equivalent to England’s we would have a population of around 27 million. The British media coverage of migration has been mainly one sided. While there are approximately 2.5 million EU citizens living in the UK, there are about 1.8 million British people living and working in other EU countries; it is not all one-way traffic. During the last 10 years, however, there has been net migration from other EU countries of the order of 400,000 people into Britain. During the same period there has also been increased migration into Britain from non-EU countries. Between now and the next British general election the two major parties will continue to talk tough on migration. Interestingly, while some politicians and sections of the media have stoked anti-EU sentiment, a recent IpsosMori poll in Britain showed 56pc were in favour of staying in the EU while 36pc favour withdrawal. The wider British public may be more perceptive about the benefits of membership.
There is no doubt that Mr Cameron and the Conservative Party is engaged in a tough political fight with UKIP. Some Labour Party seats may also be at risk to a strong UKIP surge. The danger for Mr Cameron and for Britain is this. As the general election approaches Mr Cameron and his party may feel forced to take ever stronger anti-EU positions, such as his recent proposal to put a cap on immigration numbers from the EU. Mr Cameron’s anti-EU rhetoric and the anti-immigrant sloganeering of the Conservative Party is winning no friends anywhere in Europe. Mr Cameron is in serious danger of making public demands as regards renegotiating Britain’s membership of the EU, which will not be capable of being delivered if he is Prime Minister after the next election. You never beat your political opponents by playing on their pitch. You take the fight to them.
His speeches and those of his colleagues in the Conservative Party are creating the conditions for a possible British exit from the EU. Standing alone is one element of English national identity and it still exercises a powerful tug on the English imagination. There is no doubt, however, that British withdrawal from the EU would have enormous political and economic consequences for Britain itself, for the EU and for Ireland. It is in Ireland’s national interest that Britain remains a fully-engaged member of the EU. We should use all our influence in Britain and in the EU to prevent the UK going overboard.