Yesterday the UK media focused on David Cameron’s speech on the UK’s renegotiation demands, spelled out – more or less – in a formal letter to the president of the European Council Donald Tusk later in the day.
In his speech Cameron referred to the need to curb access to in-work benefits for EU migrants stating that 43 per cent claim benefits of some sort in the first four years they are in the country.
The figure was immediately seized by a number of experts disputing the methodology used. Full Fact, an independent organisation that verifies claims made by politicians of all parties, said it would be launching a full complaint to the UK Statistics Authority as there seems to be “nothing” backing up the figures in any official publication.
Aside from the veracity of the figure consider that the focus is on in-work benefits (tax credits and social housing for those in work), which paints a picture of people working and playing by the same rule as the native population.
By contrast, Cameron’s claim that an overgenerous welfare system is swelling the number of people coming to the UK suggests people are coming primarily to score some easy money, only putting in ten-hour days in hospitals, fields, food processing plants and care homes as a frivolous afterthought.
Meanwhile, in the real word, a refugee and migrant crisis of truly biblical proportion continues to play out. Some 150,000 people have so far this year poured into Italy, Malta and Greece after making a harrowing journey from Africa. Large numbers continue to arrive through Turkey and then travel north through the Balkans. Sweden and even Germany are increasingly overwhelmed by the sheer scale of arrivals, their generosity put to a terrible test. Fences are being built, borders are slamming shut.
At a summit currently under way in Malta EU leaders will pledge billions of euros to African countries in exchange for help with the migrant crisis, with the European Commission offering €1.8bn (£1.3bn) and EU countries expected to pledge more.
Of course neither this, not similar blandishments aimed at Turkey, will stop any bombs from falling on Syria or address the dictatorial practices of Eritrea or make Libya any less of a failed state.
Desperate people will therefore carry on arriving on Europe’s shores, march through its forests and along its railway tracks. The 24 hour news media, not to mention social media, will witness and relay every drowning, every child left freezing in a field, every teargassed protest. Not knowing will not be an excuse for not acting.
Our campaign relentlessly highlights Europe’s recent failings in this and other respects. But while the EU is nowhere near close to getting a handle on any of this, it does at least grasp the enormity of the problem and the need for a Europe-wide response.
How much more ludicrous the UK stance looks, its obsession with getting “a better deal” from the rest of Europe as if the UK was owed something and was somehow exempt from continent-wide challenges, able to retreat at any moment into splendid and unfettered isolation from the brewing catastrophes of the 21st centuries.
The ugly rhetoric of benefit-claiming-as-benefit-scrounging applied to Europe’s own citizens who are here to fill jobs that need doing but don’t – apparently- deserve a decent level of pay, is not just another milestone in what will be a long, uninformed and nasty referendum campaign. It seems to me a sign of madness, a fiddling of statistics while the world burns.
This version of reality, where the most pressing thing on the PM’s agenda is stopping an EU citizen in work claiming tax credits for his family, might reflect popular prejudices (or indeed create them) but it does the people of Britain a great disservice, by hiding a stark truth: we are all in this together and it’s going to get much worse.
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