Six weeks before Romanian and Bulgarian workers will get unrestricted access to European labour markets, David Cameron has announced new benefit restrictions on all EU migrants.
The initiative is, to borrow the word used by European Commissioner Laszlo Andor, “nasty”. It is also, to judge it in terms of bourgeois policy-making efficacy, nonsensical.
Under the proposals, newly arrived EU jobseekers will not be able to claim any housing benefit ever, will not be entitled to out-of-work benefits for the first three months of residency, will not be able to claim benefits for more than six months. A new minimum earnings threshold will be introduced before which benefits can be claimed.
A further measure — that any EU migrant sleeping rough or begging will be deported and barred from re-entry for 12 months unless they have a job to go to — is specifically aimed at Roma migrants.
This last proposal is the most obviously “nasty” message — “Roma go home” — but the other measures are as bad. EU workers will be second-class workers; they will pay tax but will not be entitled to make any call on public finances if they lose their job! They will be tolerated as long as they do not fall foul of the ordinary and inevitable uncertainties of being a worker in a capitalist economy.
These proposals set up divisions between migrant and local workers which can only boost fearfulness and a sense of helplessness among all workers, in or out of work. What does the future hold? Whatever it is the only thing we can do about it is to turn on our fellow workers.
A nasty policy, but also cynical. Cameron has no evidence to back up the claim that there are very many “benefit tourists” in the UK or many more getting ready to come to the UK.
The most recent research (from 2009) shows EU migrants are 60% less likely to claim benefits than local workers! The government has even acknowledged that few Romanians and Bulgarians want to come to the UK. The big migration from those countries (to EU countries other than the UK!) was in 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania first joined the EU.
These measures arise out of competition between the political parties in the UK. The Tories are bothered about four things.
• With waning poll ratings, the Tories are looking to the European elections in May and to compete with the anti-immigration stance of UKIP, which scored 19% in a recent poll (Observer/Opinium). Unfortunately for the Tories, but much more unfortunately for migrants, the Tories’ anti-immigration stance has only increased support for UKIP.
• The Tories also want to outbid Labour on immigration. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper is just the latest Labour politician to say the last Labour government allowed immigration to grow “too far and too fast”. Even before Cameron’s announcements, Cooper was pushing the government to act on “benefit tourism”. Labour has fully entered this vile bidding war on immigration.
The Tories have been under sustained pressure from a right-wing tabloid xenophobic campaign against a predicted “wave” of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants. Because there is nothing the Tories can legally do about the relaxing of labour market controls on 1 January, they are reduced to talking tough and acting tough.
Back in 2010 the Tories committed themselves to bring net migration down to fewer than 100,000 per year by 2015. That is not happening. They cast around for alternative ways to be seen to be on top of immigration.
In addition to the benefit crackdown, the government is rushing through a new Immigration Bill which will introduce many new points for immigration checks.
The new legislation will turn landlords, bank tellers, and workers at the DVLA into immigration police. All will be legally obliged to check the immigration status of people they come into contact with. The same Bill proposes a health care charge for non-EU legal migrants. The Bill will also restrict circumstances in which people who have been threatened with deportation can appeal their deportation.
The immediate effects of this bill will be to force many people into homelessness, or the over-crowded over-priced accommodation of criminal landlords. It will drive thousands of people further underground, into precarious employment, and a marginal existence.
Only better off workers and students from non-EU countries will be able to afford to come to the UK.
Nearly 50% people who lose their right to stay in the UK win it back on appeal. With the new Bill those people could now fall foul of the structurally poor-decision making of the UK immigration authorities. These difficulties will be compounded by widespread cuts to legal aid.
Will we see a hike in forced deportations? Maybe, but it is difficult to see how any government could manage to, or afford to, deport the estimated 600,000 or more people who have, for one reason or another (often the failings of the state bureaucracy), no legal status.
For just this reason many bourgeois politicians were advocating amnesty for these migrants not so long ago. Just last summer, Boris Johnson re-raised the idea of an amnesty. The call was accompanied by offensive elitism — “ambulance-chasing lawyers” prevented most deportations, he said — but at least he was being realistic about the government’s capacity to reverse historical immigration, settlement, and integration of hundreds of thousands of migrants into the UK.
In this new mood of anti-migrant demagogy — where migration is used to distract from a relentless drive against all working-class people — there is now no serious talk about amnesty.
Nick Clegg, in a rush to be indistinguishable from his Tory partners, has said the Lib Dems were wrong to call for an amnesty before the election.
So we cannot be complacent. The political mood may turn into a real drive to deport thousands more, the people who are long-time workmates and neighbours. At the same time we should remember the thousands who are already victims of “involuntary deportations” every year.
All over Europe anti-migrant politics is growing. In polls a third of French voters say they would consider voting for the far right Front National. The Swiss People’s Party is now the largest party in the federal assembly with 28.9% support. It calls for the anti-Islamisation of Europe. In Austria the Freedom Party is more popular than ever. And the openly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn last year won 7% of votes.
British politics has some way to go before such blatant racism and xenophobia becomes “mainstream”, respectable, and rooted in day-to-day party politics.
But we are not so far away. The left and labour movement must combat every aspect of this anti-migrant drive.