Fair’s fair. Ed Miliband might be a fish-faced ninny but that doesn’t let David Cameron off the hook. And not just because he’s trailing a fish-faced ninny in the polls. No, the Prime Minister can be a terrible poltroon himself.
Witness his witless suggestion today that the United Kingdom might veto future EU enlargement unless something is done to thwart “vast migrations” of people. It is a silly thing to say for a number of reasons and the first of those is that Cameron is in no position to make any such suggestion. He cannot bind future British governments and since there is no immediate prospect of any country being accepted into the EU club it’s not likely to be a decision he will ever have to make anyway.
Secondly, when did the British government start favouring protectionism? Because objecting the free movement of people is no different – in economic terms – to constructing barriers to the free movement of goods (and capital).
The mantra of British jobs for British workers makes no more sense than a mantra of Hampshire jobs for Hampshire workers. In terms of their employment is it any better for Hampshire workers to be displaced by an influx of labour from, say, Newcastle or Shetland than if the new supply of labour has come from Romania or Bulgaria?
Not really. But we would think it pretty odd – and perhaps reprehensible – if the government imposed restrictions on internal migration. So we should think it equally reprehensible that the government is still seeking to thwart the freedom of movement of people within the EU. As I wrote in January:
There are several reasons why this is contemptible. First, there is the simple principle of equity. If we accept – nay, demand – that Britons should be able to work in any of the EU’s 27 member states then fairness demands those rights be available to the citizens of all countries, not just the wealthiest, most fortunate few.
Moreover, it makes no sense for the Prime Minister to call for deepening, expanding and strengthening the single market (about which he is quite correct) while also seeking to install protectionist policies designed to impede the working of the single labour market. Freedom of movement is a principle worth defending. The EU’s eastward expansion has been a great boon for liberty and opportunity in eastern Europe. It is depressing to realise that a British government now seeks to curtail those valuable freedoms.
Again, if Britain demands protectionism in the movement of workers, it becomes harder for the UK to object to other countries’ protectionist impulses on other matters. The price of “winning” on economic migration may be “losing” in areas Britain considers important.
For a long time now Britain’s essential EU policy has been to support the expansion of the European Union. This has been, like many good policies, a question of principle and expediency. Principle because expanding the benefits of membership to new countries is a good thing in itself; expediency because a bigger EU serves Britain’s long-term objective of preventing a deeper political union.
Perhaps David Cameron has abandoned Britain’s long-standing policy. Or, dismal cynics might think, he is pandering to the baser elements of his base and doing his best to out UKIP the Kippers. The problem with that is that you cannot out-do UKIP without becoming UKIP yourself.
Still, maybe we should give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt and assume that there is a reason beyond domestic politics why he a) thinks the EU something worth being part of and b) now says he wants to prevent other countries from joining.
Alas it becomes difficult to make such allowances when Cameron says “The EU’s founding fathers simply did not envisage that the accession of new countries would trigger mass population movements across Europe. We must return to what the EU first envisaged: the free movement of workers ready to work hard and get on in life, not the free movement of those after the best benefit deal.”
This is dreadful, unbecoming stuff. I am pretty sure it is difficult to tell who is after “the best benefit deal” and who is “ready to work hard” until those people have had the chance to exercise their freedom of movement. Moreover Cameron says it is vital to avoid repeating the “huge mistake” Labour made when it, blessedly, did little to prevent Poles and other new europeans from coming to Britain. If I were a Pole working in Britain I’d be displeased by this slur and not just because, in the case of the Poles in particular, the myth of the benefit-moocher is just that: a myth.
I think Cameron’s talk of a “global race” is pretty silly but if you take it seriously – as apparently he does – it is stupid as well as counterproductive to raise barriers to immigration. On the contrary, you should be lowering them to maximise your chances of attracting the best and brightest immigrants from other european countries (and from elsewhere too, frankly).
Nor is he right to say that no-one ever thought about the free movement of peoples and its possible impact until recently. Not so. Among many others, Friedrich Hayek did. As long ago as 1939 Hayek wrote an essay titled The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism. It’s the final chapter of his book Individualism and Economic Order (free pdf here). It begins:
It is rightly regarded as one of the great advantages of interstate federation that it would do away with the impediments as to the movement of men, goods, and capital between the states…
Hayek welcomes this. Indeed he welcomes the idea of what we might these days term a federal superstate. And he does so on grounds of economic liberty and, with it, the advancement of peoples. He’s in favour of a monetary union and political union because he thinks each of these will, in the end, maximise liberty, opportunity and prosperity.
You may say the EU has not, in fact, developed quite as Hayek hoped such a project might. You could object that it interferes too much, too often. You would have a point. But a huge amount of what the European Commission actually does revolves around trying to implement and enforce the rules of the Single Market. That’s rather a good thing, by the way. Free markets need rules otherwise their freedom tends to be short-lived.
Of course, Hayek was also an optimist. To wit:
Once frontiers cease to be closed and free movement is secured, all these national organisations, whether trade-unions, cartels, or professional associations, will lose their monopolistic position and thus, qua, national organisations, their power to control the supply of their services or products.
It hasn’t quite worked out like that though, again, British policy has long favoured confronting precisely these protectionist and undesirable monopolies within individual member states’ economies.
Hayek argued that federation offered a double-blessing. On the one hand, the ability of individual states to indulge in protectionism would be sharply reduced; on the other, the larger and more diverse the federation so, inevitably, the harder it would be for the federation’s government to impose restrictive policies upon the individual states. That is:
If… the sovereign units were much larger than they are today, it would be much more difficult to place a burden on the inhabitants of one region who might differ from the former not only in language but also in almost every other respect.
This too chimes with Britain’s traditional attitude towards EU expansion. Back to Hayek:
It is, after all, only common sense that the central government in a federation composed of many different people will have to be restricted in scope it it is to avoid meeting an increasing resistance on the part of the various groups which it includes. But what could interfere more thoroughly with the intimate life of the people than the central direction of economic life, with its inevitable discrimination between groups? There seems to be little possible doubt that the scope for the regulation of economic life will be much narrower for the central government of a federation than for national states. And since, as we have seen, the power of the states which comprise the federation will be yet more limited, much of the interference with economic life to which we have become accustomed will be altogether impracticable under a federal organisation.
As I say, the man was an optimist. Which is one reason why he was not a conservative. He posits a happy equilibrium in which checks and balances – as well as political and economic reality – creates a cheerful paralysis in which both national and federal governments are hamstrung.
Now, again, you might have a point in arguing that the EU is not quite Hayek’s ideal kind of federation (and his own views were not wholly consistent either. Like most people he proved capable of changing his mind). Nevertheless he also articulates the essence of UK policy towards europe: thwart it with expansionist kindness.
Perhaps, again, Hayek was wrong. But it is, in relation to David Cameron’s remarks, notable that Hayek treats the freedom of movement as a sacred right. Perhaps the Prime Minister should read his Hayek again and, if he thinks the old boy was wrong, tell us why that is. Which would be especially interesting since, as I say, so much (though not all) of what Hayek says is, or has been, a large part of Britain’s approach to the European Union.
And he could answer this question too: does he think Britons should be able to work in any EU member state?