Polish Londoner

These are the thoughts and moods of a born Londoner who is proud of his Polish roots.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Can the Polish Government assist the British Prime Minister in winning the EU referendum in UK?

Memorandum to Mrs Agnieszka Kowalska, Deputy Director for European Affairs at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Warsaw.
It is known that the continued participation of the United Kingdom as a full member of the European Union remains an important objective in Polish foreign policy, as long as it does not lead to a need to renegotiate the EU treaties. The two countries have many common strategic interests in security, energy and in protecting the interests of EU countries that are so far outside the euro zone. The list of demands for her EU partners from the British government is not very specific because it is dependent to some extent on: a / the whims of the general public in Britain and particularly from the growing reluctance of older voters to tolerate uncontrolled access to the UK labour market and to the UK health and welfare services and social benefits by people from abroad, regardless of whether or not they are EU citizens and b / on objections from businesses, and above all from small businesses, protesting against the excess of regulations set by the European Parliament. British concerns regarding "ever closer union" stem directly from the fact that this slogan automatically motivates officials and members of the European Parliament to create new rules and directives on harmonization of everyday products and services that seem completely superfluous. And besides the British feel that this threatens their sense of national sovereignty which they had managed to retain even during the Second World War, when Britain was the only European country participating in that war that never had to survive the humiliation of defeat and occupation. For sure this statement could restructured into a similar formula that gives subsidiarity to the clause by adding a phrase, such as “at the appropriate pace for each EU member country”. The British government would even like reverse some of the Directives, particularly as regards employment rights within the Social Charter, but any changes (and especially a withdrawal from the Charter) would not have received the support from the opposition parties in the UK, particularly Labour and the SNP, and without their support, Prime Minister Cameron could actually lose the referendum. And besides, mechanisms for toning down or excluding irksome clauses and regulations already exist provided that a sufficient number of other EU countries would agree to support such changes. In the case of free movement of workers across EU borders, the British government is already aware that it can no longer undermine the basic principle of the right and entitlement of every EU citizen to receive benefits and services of the country they have settled in provided such provisions are the right of that country's own citizens. There can be no discrimination between nationals and other EU citizens. British public opinion is not so resentful of access to its own benefits to anyone, regardless of nationality, if they were known to have already made a contribution to the prosperity of the country by working here and paying national insurance (NI), as well as income tax and council tax. The most intense objections relate to recipients of benefits which are obtained within the first weeks of arrival in the UK, and these include access to benefits for the unemployed or working at low wages (e.g. income support, job seekers allowance, working tax credit), housing benefit, Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit, without previously having made any contribution to the state exchequer. British voters suspect that the amount arriving to work and claim benefits from other EU countries is getting out of the control of the UK authorities and that the main motivation for such arrivals are generous (in their own opinion) benefits which have not yet been merited. In any event, such a perception of abuse of benefits and possible fraud persists, and when statistics are produced showing that the percentage of such abuses are rare, the public remains sceptical. Poland is also acutely aware of the need to stabilize the current excess of 140,000 young Poles a year travelling abroad permanently to other EU states. These departures exacerbate the threat of long-term demographic decline in Poland. If these people going abroad for work send part of their income back to Poland for their families then their departure still remains a relatively positive phenomenon; but if their intention in going abroad is merely to take advantage of more generous benefits then this will not benefit Poland in the long term. These people not only create a loss to the Polish economy and to the economy of the country of destination, but also harm the reputation of other hard-working Poles abroad. In this situation, I believe that it is both in the interest of the Polish authorities and the British government to reduce the amount of further departures from Poland of so-called Polish "benefit tourists", and to restrain their temptation to make use of those British benefits when in this country. Of course, because of the cardinal EU principle about the free movement of EU workers from one country to another without discrimination against their rights and access to local services, I propose another solution that could begin as a bilateral practice between the British and Polish authorities and which could in turn, be enhanced and undertaken by other EU countries, bilaterally first, and later on multilaterally. So, it is proposed that any application for Polish benefits by UK citizens and for British benefits by Polish citizens made within 12 months of their first arrival in the country of destination, be frozen for that first 12 months of arrival until the relevant health, tax and social services of the country of origin have been able to assess and reveal the applicant’s true financial status. The relevant Polish authorities, for instance, would have to acknowledge that their citizens do not have other sources of income, e.g. social insurance payments from ZUS, and that they have paid off all financial obligations in their own country. Only after confirmation that these applicants do not have other sources of income, would the destination countries be able to grant the various benefits to which the applicant could be entitled, including the payment due for the period when this payment was frozen. Any trip by an applicant away from the destination country, even for a short period of time, will negate the waiting time to that date and the applicant would have to begin his or her quarantine period again on their next arrival at that country. Ministries of the two countries would undertake in the spirit of mutual transparency to provide sufficient data during this probationary year in order to carry out their assessments within the required 12 month period. This will also cover child benefits paid to children not resident in the country where the benefit is issued if the applicant has arrived at the country of destination less than 12 months before the claim is made. On the one hand, it will discourage trips that were only dependent on obtaining benefits in the other EU country, but also it will discourage people in the destination country from making premature applications for financial assistance to which they were not yet entitled through earlier tax and national insurance contributions. In addition, it will be an effective tool against tax and benefit fraud in both countries. However, no such measures could be regarded as discrimination against EU citizens because, in the end, those benefits to which the applicant has been entitled will be made available and be back dated after the quarantine period is over. The second difficulty broached by the British government is the question of Polish citizens who, despite their access to work legally in the UK, still continue to work illegally without registering for national insurance and without paying taxes. Where this applies to illegal employment of citizens not originating in the EU, the authorities can impose heavy fines on the employer and deport the illegal worker. I would suggest, however, in the case where the UK authorities catch EU citizens working in the informal economy they could deport these people back to their own country. The Polish authorities and other EU countries would have the same right in the case of British nationals working illegally in Poland or another EU country. Of course deportees could return relatively quickly to the country where they were employed but that deportation, even if temporary, would nonetheless be costly and create a certain amount of dislocation in the private and professional life of the offender in question. Due to the fact that this work in the grey economy is outside the law, and under British law would actually be a crime, it too cannot be classified as a form of sanction that discriminates against EU citizens. It seems to me that such initiatives by the Polish government would be a viewed positively not only by the British Government, but also by the British public, and make it easier for the UK Prime Minister to argue that he had been able to obtain positive results in his negotiations in the European capitals, particularly in Warsaw. It would also put the remaining hard working Polish citizens working legally in the UK in a more positive light. In fact these administrative measures could be a model or pilot scheme that could be adopted by other EU countries and would still not be regarded as a form of discrimination against EU citizens, Wiktor Moszczyński London 16/10/2015

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Could Poland help out Cameron?

As Prime Minister David Cameron has sown, so must he reap. Over the last five years, instead of facing down the right wing of his party and the populist slogans of UKIP, he took the path of least resistance. He acted with hostility towards the European Union constantly threatening to withdraw from the Union and highlighting at every step the most negative aspects of the Union. He drilled away at the wound of EU migration, at the excesses of bureaucracy and restrictive legislation and alleged fraud in social benefits by EU citizens. He boasted that he was the first British prime minister who vetoed a decision of the European Council of Ministers though it was just an empty gesture that upset potential allies who sympathized with some of his proposed reforms. Earlier still, he cut off the Tories in the European Parliament from the dominant Christian Democratic grouping and led them into a marginal Euro-sceptic grouping alongside Polish members of PiS (Law and Justice Party) and other more extreme right-wing European parties. Because of this Conservatives have lost daily contact with the real Christian Democratic initiators of European policy, headed by Chancellor Merkel. Cameron strutted around and puffed himself up proudly as a British patriot defending the interests of his own country in a zero sum game against the rapacious demands of EU bureaucracy and the needy countries of Eastern Europe. He did not dwell on any of the benefits emanating from membership of the Union, almost never named the effectiveness of the single market or the environmental protection of the rights of workers and women. We now know that this attitude was just a front in order to maintain the support of a large part of the electorate that felt intimidated by the UKIP induced spectre of an endless tidal wave of immigrants. Instead of confounding and condemning the barren isolationist tide Cameron and his party tried to head it off by showing their "tough" image in what proved to be a panicky swelling up of anti-European feeling in the country. Miliband, the Labour leader, bravely clung to the principle that the United Kingdom should remain in the Union and therefore a referendum on membership would be undesirable. Miliband, loyal to his principles, lost; Cameron, a cunning gambler, surprisingly won the elections. He has proved the more effective politician, but he is not a statesman. Now Cameron wants to change everything and seek to reaffirm the UK’s membership of the Union. But in order to regain public confidence after such a U turn and to get a positive result in the referendum he needs to play a deception on the electorate. He must demonstrate that the whole previous quadrille on the European Union dance floor was just an attempt to persuade the European Union to make the relevant concessions to spice up the bid to retain membership. A broad litany of fundamental concessions announced earlier in the Conservative election manifesto included the right of national parliaments to block EU legislation that they disapprove of, the need to reduce the amount of trade regulations and to stop social benefits for newly arrived EU citizens in the first four years as well as cutting child benefit to EU children living abroad. He would have liked to regulate all EU citizens’ access to the labour market but was aware these would be vetoed by all other EU member states. While he had hoped that some of the other demands, such as the re-interpretation of the phrase “ever closer union” in the EU constitution, or a reduction in EU directives on commercial transactions, could meet with much sympathy from other member states, it was pointed out that none of them had had the appetite for any fundamental treaty changes. They had no wish to then hold the required referenda to approve those changes and certainly not within the 2 year timetable set them by Cameron. Despite undoubted cosmetic concessions that he may receive from his neighbours he was now realizing that his main demands for stopping benefits and national parliamentary vetoes were completely unattainable. Now that he has won the general election Cameron must "negotiate" something sufficiently substantial with his European partners to persuade the British electorate that it can finally vote in a referendum for remaining within a "reformed" Union. So he needs to draw in other countries to concoct a somewhat hypocritical illusion that he has won something substantial in this game. It is a matter not so much of reality, but the perception of that reality. In politics, perception itself is often enough. Cameron hopes that in this game a large part of British society itself will be ready to accept this version. Cameron does have the heavy artillery of big business and foreign investors, especially Asian and American, on his side and politically he will be able to count on the support of the main opposition parties, namely Labour, SNP, Liberal-Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. Ranged against him will be around 100 recalcitrant Tory MPs, about 3 million voters who had voted unsuccessfully in May for UKIP and the anti-EU newspapers "Daily Telegraph", "Daily Mail" and "Daily Express". Furthermore, at the head of the "No" block he could well face the most popular politician in the UK, the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Public opinion is currently volatile and the outcome is uncertain. Much will become clear by next year when the charade called “negotiations with European partners” will come to a close and Cameron will have to present to the electorate a paltry outcome of concessions he had obtained in the other European capitals. After being subjected to a twelve month barrage of daily propaganda from alarmed captains of industry on the one hand and the shrill call of the Europhobes on the other, will the electorate want to join in the game of smoking mirrors with the Prime Minister and pretend that something has been achieved? This hostile part of the electorate will know, however, that the emperor has no clothes and it will ensure that every one is made aware of this. After that it will be a matter of “Europe - take it or leave it". But Cameron's unclad appearance will not only be decried by isolationists, as it is being already by UKIP and by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson. Cameron has been warned about his naked stance by the Polish Europe Minister, Rafal Trzaszkowski, one of the younger talents of the current, somewhat wobbly, ruling elite. He called upon the British people to be realistic about many of the things they could lose by leaving Europe and about what their prime minister will be able or not be able to negotiate successfully despite the greatest good will on the part of Poland and other EU countries. Trzaszkowski’s comments appeared in the British media, most notably in Sunday's "Observer" which devoted its first page to him. Besides, we know that the current Polish government, in the face of upcoming parliamentary elections in October, and following a disastrous defeat of its candidate in the recent presidential candidate and its current messy cabinet reshuffle, will not risk any concessions to Cameron that could threaten the rights of Poles abroad. In the field of migration Poland will not buckle, and Poland is not alone in its stubbornness. In matters appertaining to the principle of free migration Cameron may as well give Warsaw a miss at least for the time being. And if the more nationalist opposition, PiS, were to win the election Cameron should stay away for longer. But there is another side to the coin. First, Poland would be devastated if Britain left the EU. For indeed London is a counterweight to Germany and the consolidated core countries in the Eurozone. The remaining countries still outside the Eurozone, like Poland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Hungary or Romania, will not be able to cope with the agenda of closer integration of the countries sharing a common currency. Here Britain's contribution to the Union's internal decision-making outside the straitjacket of the single currency is crucial. Secondly, the United Kingdom supports Polish targets for a coordinated energy policy and the maintenance of sanctions against Russia. Thirdly, Polish expats in the UK contribute over one billion pounds per year to the Polish economy, although that income is slowly declining. Poland can only lose if Britain were to leave the EU. As UK’s staying with the EU is such a vital strategic interest for Poland, should not the Polish governments, now and after the election, be keeping in reserve a more flexible approach to Cameron’s requests to helping him win over a volatile British electorate? Poland is right to insist on respecting the fundamental EU principle of free movement of workers within the EU labour markets and their right to benefits under the same conditions as those countries’ indigenous citizens. However the most provocative aspect for British voters of these EU freedoms is the opportunity for EU arrivals to enjoy the fruits of the British welfare state immediately upon arrival without having worked one day and without having paid any taxes. In fact, this kind of benefit tourism is not as widely practiced as many claim but this again is a matter of perception. Many of the hard-working Poles living in the UK and diligently paying their taxes here also consider this unfair. Complaints about the possibility of benefit tourism remains one of most festering wounds in the current political crisis within the EU and specifically in Polish-British relations. Increasingly also many Poles are becoming concerned at the drain of young Poles from their own country as they fear a considerable demographic crisis as the Polish working population begins to shrink and they too would be loath to see this exodus fuelled by lax social benefit rules in countries like the UK. This was a matter of particular concern to the new Polish president-Elect Andrzej Duda. Consequently a certain respite in the number of Poles travelling to the UK could already be in the mutual interest of both the UK and Poland. So what could the new Polish government, formed after the elections in October, offer Prime Minister Cameron as a last resort to meet the whims of the British electorate? Something which would also be consistent with the interests of Poland? I think the best gift would be an agreement by both countries to give full access to the records of every citizen applying for new benefits in another country – whether a Brit in Poland or a Pole in the UK. Then there would be no possibility of illegal dual access to services and any new applicant, for example for housing benefit, would have to be checked with the income of that person in the country of origin. Of course, such research could take up to a few months during which any new benefit would be temporarily frozen. This would give the erstwhile applicant the appropriate incentive to finding legal employment in the country he or she is visiting. Such a system could also be extended to other EU countries, and I think that Germany in particular might welcome such a project. No EU principle of the right to work or to equal benefits is being flouted, there would be no requirement for a treaty change or any new referendum in other countries but it could satisfy one of the major concerns of the British electorate over abuse of benefits and could help the pro-EU lobby to win the referendum. It would also remove the current veil of suspicion and tension which currently clouds attitudes to Polish and other EU citizens working and setting up families in the UK. Wiktor Moszczyński Appear in in www.polishlondoner.blogspot.co.uk and published in the London “Polish Daily” on June 12 2015.