The Sunday Times

December 9th, 2012

Either reform benefits or curb immigration now

Put yourself for a moment in the position of a Romanian or Bulgarian. The effort will make you feel very glad indeed that you are a Briton. Bad as the austerity cuts may feel here, life over there is truly harsh: poverty means something entirely different.

As a Romanian or Bulgarian you will know that from the end of next year you will have the right to escape from your dismal, corrupt and impoverished homeland and come to live anywhere in the EU. Which country would you pick? The answer is blindingly obvious. You’d be a fool to choose anywhere but the United Kingdom.

That is why it is so alarming that the government refused last week to give official estimates of the numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians it expects to fetch up here in 2014. Keen no doubt to avoid the mess the Labour government got into with underestimating the numbers of Polish and Hungarian arrivals last time round, the coalition claimed in the Commons that it didn’t know how many would come and had no means of finding out.

What it must know, at least, is that there will be a lot. All those waiting for the end of 2013 will have been encouraged by reports from tens of thousands of compatriots already here.

The first, most obvious incentive for them to come is the generous benefits on offer for low-paid workers here compared with the rest of the EU 15 (the member countries before 2004). Only three other countries, according to new research from the think tank MigrationWatch UK, are more generous than Britain — Denmark, Luxembourg and Ireland.

The UK is also more generous in topping up low wages than France and Finland, and substantially more generous than Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the rest of the EU. When living costs are accounted for, low-paid workers in the UK are the second best-off in the EU, after Luxembourg.

One might be inclined to question such startling findings, but MigrationWatch has a good track record for accuracy, ruefully acknowledged by the civil service, no less. It also points out that access to unemployment benefit is much easier in the UK, where there are virtually no conditions attached to entitlement, than in all the other EU countries, which have stricter controls.

In other EU countries, migrants can claim unemployment benefit only when they have worked, and contributed to the system, for a specific amount of time. Admittedly, most of them offer a higher rate to those entitled to it, but a bird in the hand is much better than two birds in the Romanian bush, and there’s always moonlighting.

In many countries the actual amount of benefit depends on previous contributions, and the length of time a person can claim it will also vary in this way. In the UK it’s possible to claim unemployment benefit more or less on arrival, without any limit on how long for. So a worker from Romania or Bulgaria will not be penalised for never having contributed anything in tax or national insurance, and can claim all sorts of benefits, including housing, as soon as he or she can find the way to the benefits office.

This is to say nothing of instant entitlement to free schools, GPs and hospitals, which — imperfect though they are — must seem like paradise to people from impoverished southeastern Europe. Why on earth would anyone go anywhere else? Only Denmark or Luxembourg would have something of the same powerful attraction, but smart migrants would choose a multicultural and English-speaking country that is neither freezing nor boring.

No one can blame new EU citizens for choosing to move to countries where they and their families can hope for a better life. They’d be daft if they didn’t. So it is unreasonable to resent the certain mass influx. What we should resent is the disastrously muddled thinking behind the European project — the notion, among other serious and obstinately blind mistakes, that the free movement of people across all the EU would be a good idea, given that it was to include access to welfare.

It ought to have been blindingly obvious that the EU’s rich countries would have to be very rich indeed if they were to extend their generous welfare entitlements as of right to all the huddled masses of greater Europe. It ought to have been blindingly obvious that there would come a point when the EU’s welfare expenditure would be unaffordable, as it exists at present — even without the vast burden of hundreds of thousands of low-skilled and impoverished immigrants.

Even before the terrible economic reckoning of 2008, it should have been clear that the money was running out and government borrowing, such as Gordon Brown’s in the UK, was unsustainable. Now that is all too painfully obvious.

A generous welfare state is incompatible with the free movement of people, whether inside or outside Europe. The two together are unaffordable. Already the combination is pushing down living standards and pushing up borrowing; soon this will be a political catastrophe, not just in the United Kingdom but all across the EU.

It’s a tragedy already gathering force. The lesser but important question, meanwhile, is why the UK has been so much more generous to EU migrants than nearly every other country in the region. I suspect it is down to a combination of vanity, incompetence, wishful thinking and political correctness.

If every EU citizen can come here and use all the benefits of the welfare state, if people from outside Europe can bring in many of their relatives, once they’ve got leave to stay, if they can join the near 50% of British households that take state handouts of some sort, if all this happens in a deep recession when the tax take is declining scarily, this country will either go broke or have to shut its borders. So, if not quite so quickly, will the other rich countries of the EU. To repeat the point, a generous welfare state — a welfare state at all — is incompatible with the free movement of people.

Theresa May has talked of renegotiating the EU directive on the free movement of people. It can only be talk; this is a cornerstone of the EU and cannot be changed. The government could reduce welfare benefits for new arrivals, in line with less generous neighbours, but that would make little difference in the long run.

For one thing, this country has lost control of its borders. More importantly, the entire system, right across the EU, is unsustainable. If I were a Romanian I would waste no time in getting here before things change.