The hype over Romanian and Bulgarian migrants marked one of the most depressing aspects of Westminster politics, not because it was incited by UKIP but because the Westminster parties chose to pander to that party’s divisive rhetoric and shift to the right.
Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, himself an immigrant’s son, said founders of the EU had “free movement of workers in mind, not free movement of jobseekers”. Yet research published by University College London shows that EU migrants are 33% less likely to claim benefits than UK nationals.
Indeed, EU migrants are net contributors to our economy. Between 2001 and 2011, they contributed 34% more to the fiscal system than they received, with a net contribution of £22.1 billion. Over the years they have opened businesses, created jobs and become part of the fabric of our culture and society. Scotland is rightly proud of its diverse migrant communities.
Tories accusing EU migrants of “benefit tourism” might well have become the norm. But for Labour to claim migration from Eastern Europe was, as Jack Straw put it, a spectacular mistake, shows the Westminster parties are dancing to Ukip’s tune. Even Liberal Democrats, once pro-Europe and pro-immigration, back tougher welfare rules for EU nationals.
So, who really pulls the strings at Westminster? Do we allow our welfare, immigration and Europe policies to be directed by Nigel Farage? Last year, Ireland then Lithuania set the agenda for 500 million Europeans by providing presidents of the European Council: two countries smaller than Scotland but with more MEPs, their own commissioner and the power to steer EU policy for six months.
Why shouldn’t Scotland do the same? Instead we’re represented by the skeptics of Europe and their isolationism is costing us dear. We have a Prime Minister threatening to withdraw from the social chapter, which protects workers’ rights. Would our First Minister agree? What about a UK Chancellor taking Brussels to court for introducing caps on bankers’ bonuses? Would John Swinney do that? A Home Secretary considering withdrawal from the European Arrest warrant. Would Kenny MacAskill do the same?
A Rural Affairs Secretary calling for a reduction to the agriculture budget, when Scotland already gets the worst farming deal in Europe. Would Richard Lochhead agree? An Employment Minister refusing to implement Europe’s Youth Guarantee to put young people into work.Would Angela Constance back that? A Work and Pensions Secretary rejecting EU funding for food banks to help the most vulnerable. Which Scottish Government, of any stripe, would countenance that?
For the past four decades, the UK has been on the edges, not shaping the European debate but merely reacting through a Europhobic lens. Scotland needs the power to respond to European initiatives based on its distinct priorities and needs.
As two independent member states, Scotland and the UK would, combined, have a stronger voice with more votes to pursue common goals, and where we disagreed, the power to take a different path. A year ago, the UK, Denmark and Ireland celebrated 40 years of EU membership. Dublin marked it with a successful EU presidency, a US-EU trade deal and reform of the Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agricultural Policy. The UK marked it with a Prime Minister announcing a referendum to quit.
Today, on Europe Day, let’s reflect on the kind of relationship we want with our partners. Do we accept that the overwhelming population of the UK could, in an in-out referendum, vote to drag us out of Europe against our will?
Or do we take control, determine our future in Europe ourselves, embark on a constructive relationship with our neighbours and have a direct voice at the negotiating table? It’s time to make a contribution to the direction taken by Europe. Let’s leave the europhobia behind and take our rightful place in the family of nations.
This article first appeared in the Herald, 9th May 2014.