Where does one even begin?
It is depressing to think that our media is, for the next four months, going to be dominated by whether Britain should stay in the EU. It is even more depressing to think that the outcome could possibly be influenced by the views of a man who has virtually admitted that his decisions are based more on his own political prospects than on what is best for the country. And perhaps the most depressing thing of all is that I should be so naive that I hope for greater altruism amongst those in Westminster.
The current situation is so bizarre that it could have been lifted from a novel by Kafka. I have lost count of the number of commentators (the majority of them in the exit camp) who have said that David Cameron’s frantic travels around Europe over the past few days are largely irrelevant, because the ‘new deal’ that he has achieved matters little in the bigger European picture. In this view I am totally at one with them. Whether or not we pay child benefit to a tiny proportion of EU workers in this country whose children are still in their country of origin is insignificant compared to the security and safety of all European people in today’s turbulent world. (For what it is worth on that particular issue I support Cameron’s attempt to change the current rules, but I really can’t get worked up about it).
I am not a monarchist, but certainly support Prince William’s recently expressed views that it is essential that Britain can unite with its allies for security and prosperity. He was not speaking about Europe specifically, but unity with our closest neighbours seems sensible. We are Europeans not Americans; despite our (not so) common language our history binds us to Europe, not to the United States. The biggest problems that we face are global rather than national – climate change, the human-induced destruction of our planet, global epidemics, failing efficiency of antibiotics, obesity and all its complications, increasing inequality of wealth, and the rise of Daesh. Arguably many of these problems have been accelerated or aggravated by the United States, and increasingly by the other global powers such as China and India, whereas Germany and some of the Nordic countries have taken a lead on tackling many of these issues.
The media (most of which seems increasingly right-leaning) has focused on benefits, which has very much fed into the populist agenda pushed by UKIP – that somehow ‘they’ are taking ‘our’ jobs. Arguably, if true, this is for two main reasons; firstly that British employers are exploiting EU workers (especially eastern Europeans) by employing them on low wages and zero hours contracts that fail to attract UK workers. Secondly many EU citizens seeking work in this country are possibly more motivated and better educated than those in the UK who are complaining. At the risk of sounding elitist, we do not hear senior managers in banking, IT, scientific industries etc complaining about EU workers taking jobs from UK workers. At all levels the citizens from the rest of Europe who come here to work either speak English or learn it rapidly. It is not at all uncommon to find that they speak not only English but at least one other language apart from their mother tongue. Whatever the media peddle about ‘benefit tourism’ the facts do not support it. I heard an interesting comment on the radio this morning from an ‘exit’ commentator. He said that in Poland most people had never heard of in-work benefits, because the concept is completely alien to them. Now, thanks to David Cameron’s campaigning they are all aware of it!
There will always be people who exploit any welfare system, but to focus on them to the detriment of the majority who need the support that the system offers is wrong. Clearly we should work towards an enforceable minimum wage that is sufficient to live on, thus ending the need for in work benefits. It is well documented that far more money is lost to the economy from tax avoidance from ultra wealthy individuals and corporations than from exploitation of the welfare system, but it is always easier to target the vulnerable rather than the powerful and wealthy. Importantly for our society and for the welfare state, we desperately need migrant workers in health and social care, because without them these already strained systems would collapse.
It is easy to look at the bigger picture from a position of middle class professional comfort, but isn’t that exactly what our politicians should be doing?
I want the government to be leading on the big picture – the long term advantages to staying in Europe from a point of safety, security, and improved economy. After that I want them to say, ‘we hear the anxieties of those competing for low paid jobs, those currently dependent on benefits who fear that migrant workers will threaten both. We will improve the living wage, we will help employers to create jobs, not cut them. We will tackle wealth inequality, because actually, there is enough to go round if people are less greedy. We will teach our children other languages from nursery school, and make language classes available to adults who only speak English, with the aim that today’s 3y olds will all leave school competent to speak at least one other language. We will teach our children that they are British, but that also they are European.’
I am proud to call myself European, and that won’t change whatever happens on 23rd June.