David Cameron wants to cut access to benefits for workers coming from the European Union to the UK. The campaigners for British exit from the EU, the Tory right and UKIP, would like to stop those benefits altogether. David Cameron wants to cut back some of the worker protections which have come into the UK from processes of “levelling-up” across the EU, like the Working Time Directive, the Agency Workers’ Directive, and TUPE, (the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations. The EU-exit campaigners would like to abolish those protections altogether.
Solidarity wants better benefits and protections for all workers, and so we oppose Cameron’s aims in his negotiations with the other EU governments. We oppose British withdrawal from the European Union. We advocate workers’ unity across Europe to reduce barriers between countries, level up social gains, fight for changes in the undemocratic and capitalist EU, and open the path to a United Socialist States of Europe.
A wages-and-conditions deal covering a whole big corporation, or a whole industry, usually brings improvements for workers in the worse-off areas. That is why unions have opposed Tory plans for regional pay rates in public services in Britain. And if workers from lower-paid regions in Britain like the North-East, the South-West, or Wales, were banned from moving to better-paid areas, that would keep the wages in those regions much lower than they are now, as well as hurting liberties.
The same principle holds across a continent. Lower barriers between countries bring more freedom for workers, greater openings for levelling-up, greater opportunities for workers to learn from each other. Even taking into account the crashes, crises, and cuts imposed since 2008, wages in Spain, for example, have risen markedly relative to wages in Germany since Spain joined the EU in 1986.
The arguments of the right wing are based on legends and lies. They suggest that migrants burden other workers by siphoning off benefits. In fact migrants contribute £2.5 billion more in tax than they claim in benefits. The average British citizen eligible to claim benefits is far more likely to take them up than an average eligible migrant. The majority of migrants are of working age and so contribute more to the social provision that children and elderly people depend on.
In the year to April 2009 migrants from Eastern Europe were 59 per cent less likely to receive welfare benefits than UK natives; or 49 per cent if they had been here for more than two years. They were 57 per cent less likely to live in social housing. Careful economic analyses show that more immigration increases average wage levels in a country, rather than pushing them down. Generally, countries with more immigration are economically more dynamic and prosperous.
A study by Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini found that in Britain between 1997 and 2005 middle earners gained 1.5p an hour and upper earners 2p from the effects of immigration. Wages of the lowest-paid (the worst-paid 5%) have suffered in periods of high immigration — becoming 0.7p an hour worse than they would have been without immigration. That drop is still tiny compared to the positive effect of workers of all origins uniting to win a living wage - and tiny compared to the negative effect of dividing workers by country of origin.
The right wing suggest that freedom of movement and rights for migrants are a one-way street, providing gains for others at the expense of British workers. In fact about 1.8m British citizens live in other EU countries, not many fewer than the 2.3 million from other EU countries living in Britain. Only 65,000 workers from other EU countries are claiming jobseeker’s allowance in the UK, and 30,000 British workers are claiming unemployment benefits in other EU countries.
If the Tory right and UKIP succeed in getting Britain out of the EU, they will not touch the freedom of capital and trade to move across borders. If they did, it would bring no progress: shut-off national economies stifle, rather than thrive. But they won’t. Their sole aim is to remove EU pressure to “level up” modest social protections for workers, and to raise barriers even higher against migrant workers. They will not enable Britain to return to an imagined past where all life took place tidily within national borders; nor would be a good thing if they could. They will not make Britain less subject to the flows and eddies of global capital markets. Only international working-class socialist action will free any country from that global grip.