Thursday, 9 January 2014

What lies behind Cameron's 'anti-Polish' stance

To understand the hubbub revolving around David Cameron's call for a change to EU treaties to allow the limiting of child benefit from EU migrants working in the UK, it's worth looking at the politics behind the rhetoric.

The Conservative Party risks being electorally outflanked on the right by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in May's elections to the European Parliament. It is entirely likely that UKIP will win more seats than the Tories, who may well end up in third place behind Labour and UKIP.

There are two reasons why UKIP will do extremely well in the Euro-elections and yet to fail to win a single seat in Westminster come May 2015.

The first is to do with the electoral system used in the UK for the European Parliament; it is a single transferable vote system, with 73 Members of European Parliaments (MEPs) representing the nine English regions plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. With between three and ten MEPs per constituency, the multiple-deputy system means that smaller parties with no chance of winning seats in Westminster can be represented in Brussels. Britain's Green Party (who?) actually has two MEPs ever since 1999; the British Nationalist Party won two seats in the 2009 elections.

The second is to do with the fact that the Euro-elections are generally seen as meaningless, little more than a mid-term opportunity to give the party ruling the UK a bloody nose.

It will look quite different come May 2015 and the General Election. This is taken seriously, with much consideration given to tactical voting, with many voters in constituencies with a rock-solid Tory or Labour majority casting their vote not so much for their preferred candidate but for the one most likely to unseat the incumbent party. And in marginal seats, if for instance you are a Tory with strong views on immigration, voting UKIP will give Labour a chance of getting in. In other words, despite the migration issue, voting UKIP is likely to be seen as a wasted vote.

And Labour have not promised an EU referendum should they win next year's General Election.

Reading the comments section of any article published in the mainstream British media, from the Guardian to the Daily Mail will give you the impression that UKIP is a powerful force and that the majority of Brits are fed up to their back teeth with EU membership.

I don't believe this to be the case. When push comes to shove, middle England will vote with their pockets first. Hence UKIP leader Nigel Farrage's admission that EU migration may well have benefited the UK economically, but it's not about the money. And UKIP lacks a well-run, well-funded party machine.

So David Cameron, who's rather left-wing as Tories go, is cranking up the anti-migration rhetoric and is likely to continue doing so (maybe in a more nuanced way than finger-pointing at Poles who are working and paying taxes in the UK and have children in Poland) until the May Euro-elections.

But in the background, England still demands its migration debate. Part of it is indeed about Poles coming over to the UK in vast numbers in a relatively short space of time and upsetting (in a time of economic crisis) the delicate equilibrium in the labour market. But the other part is about non-Europeans with diametrically different cultures (female genital mutilation, Sharia law, religious intolerance, non-integration) who are coming the UK in even larger numbers than Poles and placing a far greater strain on the budgets as far fewer are employed and paying tax. The simple truth is that the latter is a no-go area as far as mainstream politics go; the former is fair game. [Excellent article here.]

And the Poles are in the UK in large numbers because of the EU. So in order to restrict the numbers of Poles and other central and eastern Europeans migrating to Britain, the UK can either a) quit the EU or b) renegotiate the terms of its EU membership. Neither of which sorts out the problems caused by mass migration of those non-Europeans who are perceived as the greater of the two migration issues.

If Britain quits the EU it will be bad for Poland, bad for the EU but an economic catastrophe for Britain. In order for the UK to feel comfortable about staying in, some accommodation must be made on the EU migration issue. Most likely this will revolve around benefits. Some give, some take from London and from Brussels (and indeed even from Warsaw) will be needed. But whatever happens, Britain should not leave the EU.

Poles should bear this all in mind before criticising Cameron too harshly.

This time two years ago:
Anyone still remember the Przybyl case?

This time three years ago:
Wetlands midwinter meltdown

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki rail scenes, winter

This time five years ago:
Winter drivetime, Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Kraków, a bit of winter sunshine


White Horse Pilgrim said...

I don't always agree with you, Michael, however I like much of your analysis here. In particular, you pick up on the beast that cannot be named, immigration (and high birth rates) by Muslims. Many people in Britain feel inhibited when it comes to say what they really think. The Poles are just a soft alternative to bash instead. We don't like to offend, and we trust that the Poles understand that don't really mean to offend them. We're just too inhibited to say what we mean.

I don't agree with your suggestion that Poles hold back from criticising Cameron too harshly. He's a leader, for heaven's sake. I don't expect him to behave like a puppet to what pass for the views of the ignorant. I do hope that he will lead instead of chasing votes: but perhaps he wants to cling to power just like Tony Blair? And now Cameron is pushing a new law criminalising "annoyance, or the threat to annoy". Anything to stop us saying what we think. Really I find the man hard to understand. Defender of the privileges of the rich? Liberal promoter of multiculturalism? He might just fall between two stools (or more than two) and drag us down with him.

Something else occurred to me after a visit to a nice Italian restaurant largely rub by young Poles. They are charming, attentive and pretty (or handsome as the case may be), speak better English than a fair proportion of the locals, and serve great food. What is there not to be envious of? One doesn't have to be Sigmund Freud to work out why a proportion of the population harbours a grudge. How lovely, a nice soft target that forgives our stupidity and prejudice!

Paddy said...

Very insightful post, Michael which would have been handy for both sides to have read this past week. W Wa Jeziorki at its best!

I'm still amazed that given just how many Poles live in the UK, how little visibility they have in national discourse. Perhaps that's a sign - as the statistics do tell us - that most British people get on fairly well with their new neighbours, as they always have done, whilst still being instinctively against large-scale immigration.


Michael Dembinski said...

The point Polish politicians should take note of: a) it would be a catastrophe for the Polish economy if the UK were to leave the EU (the UK is Poland's second-biggest export market, Poland has a larger trade surplus with the UK than with any other country; Poland receives billions of pounds a year in remittances from Polish workers in the UK) b) therefore some accommodation is needed for the pro-EU element in the British Government. Talking about vetoing UK attempts to renegotiate the EU Treaty is only playing to those wishing to leave.

Cameron (and indeed his successor government) will need all the support they can get to keep the UK in Europe.