These are the thoughts and moods of a born Londoner who is proud of his Polish roots.
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.
Appear in in www.polishlondoner.blogspot.co.uk and published in the London “Polish Daily” on June 12 2015.