Wednesday 11 December 2013

State of dis-Union

David Cameron wants to renegotiate the European Union ‘free-movement’ rules, in an effort to stem a potential deluge of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants. Now, I have to admit: I hold a strong antipathy towards attempts to ‘renegotiate’ anything.  What those intent on ‘renegotiating’ commitments actually say is: ‘having willingly pocketed the benefits of a deal, I am now reluctant to pay the agreed price’.

Mr. Cameron’s position is no different.  Both Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union under a given set of terms – as indeed did the UK.  Accession to the EU is voluntary and the decisions were not taken under duress; all parties involved believed that they were signing a mutually beneficial deal.  For the 25 countries already in the EU, the accession of Romania and Bulgaria opened new markets for their products, as well as enhancing their international political standing, by adding two new voices to the ‘Union’.  Those benefits have – partially, at least – already accrued; which is why attempting to change the terms of the deal now is, in my view, dishonest.

Close that door, will you?
But let’s leave the ‘procedural’ issues (though they are very relevant!) and look at Mr. Cameron’s grievances regarding EU rules.  It’s not that Mr. Cameron necessarily dislikes Bulgarians and Romanians; indeed, numerous persons of both nationalities are already employed in the UK – performing jobs that are unattractive to Brits, offering skills that are unavailable in the UK or simply because they are willing to do those job for lower wages.  Mr. Cameron says he is not concerned about them (had he said otherwise, people might call him David N. Farage); he is concerned about the so-called ‘benefit tourism’; that is, significant numbers of Bulgarians and Romanians who might decide to come and live in the UK for the sole purpose of enjoying UK social benefits – housing, living allowance, etc.

On the face of it, this sounds like a valid concern: why should the British tax-payer foot the bill for the upkeep of people who are not even British?  And Mr. Cameron’s concern is focused on Bulgarians and Romanians (rather than on French, Germans, Spaniards or Czechs) presumably because – being by far the poorest countries in the EU – Romania and Bulgaria fail to provide decent benefits (or any benefits) to that part of their citizenry who needs them.  So, nothing wrong with Mr. Cameron’s concern, is there?

Average wages, in US dollars per month.
Most people earn below the average wage,
more so in under-developed countries where social gaps tend to be broader.
Well, the fact that Mr. Cameron is not so concerned with potential ‘benefit tourists’ originating from elsewhere in Europe helps highlight an important fact: people don’t move from one country to another in search of ‘the best deal’ in terms of benefits. UK benefits may be more valuable than those provided – for instance – in Portugal; yet by-and-large Portugal’s unemployed (currently about 16% of the country’s labour force) stay in Portugal.  Nobody likes to live among strangers, particularly in times of need.  No, people engage in ‘benefit tourism’ not in order to ‘get a better deal’, but only when their backs are against the wall, when they actually struggle to survive.

The question is: why are there so numerous people in this situation (numerous enough to justify Mr. Cameron’s concern) in two countries that joined the European Union no less than 7 years ago?  Sure, Europe – like other parts of the world – still grapples with an economic crisis.  But let’s keep things in proportion: the European Union is rich!!  We hear and read daily about the crisis in Europe and about China’s fast economic development; that may cause some to forget that, even adjusted for purchasing-power parity, EU’s per capita GDP is three times higher than China’s.  The European Union accounts for circa one-fifth of the global economic output; with a population two-and-a-half times larger, China only produces 15%.

Percentage of population below poverty line.
Needless to say, the 'poverty line' is much lower in
Romania and Bulgaria, compared to France, Germany or UK.
So, I’m sorry: no ‘economic crisis’ justifies the fact that there are so many dirt-poor people in this stinking-rich ‘Union’.  And shutting the door in their face is certainly not the right thing to do.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the solution is ‘adopting’ Europe’s poor as perpetual recipients of UK (or German, or French) benefits.  That’s not what I suggest at all!  Their situation needs to be resolved (should have been resolved!) in their own countries – with the generous assistance of the more fortunate members of the ‘Union’.  I'm saying ‘should have been resolved’, because that was the very purpose of the 7-year ‘transition period’ imposed on those new member states.  Wasn’t it??  Having had 7 years to prepare (a period of time agreed in advance, including by the UK), nobody is entitled to suddenly ‘discover’ today that the arrangement won’t actually work; and to decide that, in consequence, the ‘solution’ is… not to keep their end of the bargain.  Err... to 'renegotiate' it.  And please don’t give me the line that this was the responsibility of the Romanian and Bulgarian governments.  The idea that the poor have only themselves to blame for being poor belongs to Victorian times, not to the 21st century.

Doesn't the term ‘Union’ imply a level of social solidarity similar if not identical to that extended to the less fortunate members of the British society – which is the very reason why UK has ‘social benefits’??  Aren't the poorer members of the ‘Union’ entitled to at least a modest corner of that generous social safety net – such ‘corner’ to be provided not in the form of benefits paid to those ‘migrants’ who happen to make it to the UK, but as economic and social assistance to the countries which struggle to provide similar safety nets themselves?

Because if that’s not so, then please: don’t call it a 'Union'; be honest and call it what it is: a ‘fair-weather association’.

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