The date was 22nd February and David Cameron had just returned from a summit in Brussels. Europe was experiencing the largest movement of people since the Second World War as hundreds of thousands fled for their lives from Syria, many thousands dying on the way.
Addressing the House of Commons, Cameron barely mentioned the unfolding humanitarian disaster. Instead he concentrated on a series of concessions he had extracted for the British state, should it choose to remain in Europe. Amongst this “Extra-wurst” (as the Germans termed it) was an “emergency break” on the payment of benefits to EC migrants.
That debate contained a sentence which, in February 2016 summed up the Brexit debate:
“We are discussing the future of a continent and one English Tory has reduced it to the issue of taking away benefits—from workers and children.”
That was four months ago and now the EU referendum will be forever associated with the brutal murder Jo Cox MP, stabbed and then shot in the head for supporting the European project and for standing up for Syrian refugees.
A few days ago, just before Ms. Cox was murdered, an article popped up in my newsfeed about a recent case at the European Court of Justice. The case concerned the compatibility of British social security policy with various EC Regulations. It is pretty dry stuff and the article was (understandably) inaccurate. The interpretation of EC Regulations are not generally the stuff of front page news, outside of specialist publications.
The interest in the case was explained by a banner above the article, categorising it with the heading of “Brexit” and by an editorial to the effect that it would be good news for the Remain campaign. The judgement endorses Britain’s decision to deny benefits to European citizens. It went without saying, of course, that we would want to do this. And that denying benefits to our fellow Europeans, would also be an aim of Brexit.
It is difficult to know where to start in a debate where some else’s destitution is treated as an agreed common ground. The manufactured poverty of welfare “reform” ought to be a scandal, not a starting point in a conversation about something else.
Ever since the Conservatives took power, we have seen their attacks on the welfare state have fallen disproportionately on EU citizens living in the UK.
An EU citizen arriving today to look for work faces a three month wait before they can even make a claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance, Child Benefit or Child Tax Credit.
Once they have claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance, they are only entitled to it for 3 months before facing stringent questions on their likelihood of finding work. If their only “right to reside” is as a jobseeker, they will not be entitled to Housing Benefit at any point.
If an EU citizen loses her job after working in the UK, she can “retain” her “worker status.” This will entitle her to 6 months of Jobseeker’s Allowance before the dreaded “genuine prospect of seeking work” test kicks in- resulting in benefits termination in most cases.
The European principles of free movement and non-discrimination are supposed to guarantee that a European Citizen can move anywhere within the EC to work, safe in the knowledge that a safety net will be available to them, if anything goes wrong.
Since the Conservatives began their “Welfare Reforms” in 2010, this principle has been chipped away at until it barely exists. EU citizens now sleep rough in all our major cities.
You would think that there was little left for them to take. And yet a White Paper produced in response to Cameron’s hard-won European concessions talks of “reducing the unnatural draw of our benefits system” and proposes that EC jobseekers are not paid Jobseeker’s Allowance at all and that EC workers be ineligible for tax credits for 4 years.
No wonder so many EU citizens complained at the British benefit system that the European Commission had to take to a case to the European Court of Justice on their behalf. As I read the treatment of this case, by the British media, framed entirely in relation to how it would affect the Brexit referendum, I knew I had to write something about the wholesale removal of social security from EU citizens in Europe.
And then a fascist killed Jo Cox and I wondered if an article like that would still be relevant.
In fact it is more relevant now than ever. Many of those benefit cuts, the ones that are so precious that they should forever shape our relationship to Europe, were conceived in response to the end of restrictions on the rights of Bulgarian and Romanian workers in the UK. They were brought in immediately after the restrictions were lifted – the next day in some cases. They were explicitly and openly targeted at Bulgarian and Romanian people and in particular the Roma Community.
This is institutional racism, if anything is. And now, for some, it is worth leaving Europe altogether so that its institutions can never again pull us up on it. No wonder the general public view this as a “referendum on immigration.” No wonder the racist far right have mobilised in the cause. And now a progressive politician has been murdered in cold blood for her support of the European project.
When you reduce the fate of a continent to the ability to “cut the benefits of workers and children”, just because they come from Eastern Europe, this is where things end up.