EU citizenship: the gold standard

2014-01-09 00:00

NEW Year’s Eve is always loud in our part of London, but it quietened down after all the drunks eventually staggered home — and to our astonishment, it stayed quiet all the next day.

We waited and waited for the predicted hordes of Romanian and Bulgarian “benefit tourists” to throng our streets, stealing and begging and applying for Jobseekers’ Allowance (as the dole is now known). But they never showed up.

It’s enough to make you doubt the trustworthiness of the popular press. For months, right-wing British politicians and their allies in the tabloid papers have been warning that on January 1, when citizens of the Balkan countries that joined the European Union seven years ago finally got the right of free movement throughout the EU, Britain would be inundated by poor Romanians and Bulgarians.

The Conservative Party, which dominates Britain’s coalition government, rose to the occasion. Henceforward, the government announced, immigrants will be charged for emergency hospital treatment, and they will have to wait three months before applying for the unemployment benefit.

Prime Minister David Cameron even suggested last month that the principle of free movement of EU citizens should be changed to curb “mass population movements” when new members join. It’s too late to impose that rule on Bulgarians and Romanians, who are already EU citizens, he said, but while they are free to go to Britain and look for a job, “there is not freedom to come and claim”.

This is the “benefit tourism” notion: that poor Eastern Europeans will move to the United Kingdom not to get a job, but to live off the state, claim unemployment pay, housing, and other benefits that should be reserved for honest British workers. Even Cameron has had to admit that there is no “quantitative evidence” that this phenomenon exists. Nevertheless, he talks about it constantly as if it does.

But the whole thing is a charade, and Cameron’s “new” restrictions on immigrants don’t change anything. In practice, new immigrants to Britain already had to wait three months before gaining access to unemployment benefits, and it is not legally possible for Britain to charge EU citizens for medical care. The Conservative Party in Britain has just been churning out fake solutions to phantom problems.

It is doing so entirely to ward off the challenge from its emerging far-right rival, the anti-EU, anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party, which has been poaching alarming numbers of right-wing Conservative voters. With an election due next year, Cameron is running scared, and has got into a “nastier-than-thou” bidding war with UKIP.

The anti-immigrant voters Cameron is pandering to will not change their minds when the predicted tidal wave of Balkan immigrants does not happen, nor will he change his story. He will simply claim that it was his emergency measures that stopped it. But this tempest in a teapot highlights the sheer power of the principle of free movement within the European Union. It is what makes EU citizenship the gold standard in terms of passports.

Like the United States and the Canadian province of Quebec, several EU countries offer fast-track residence permits to foreigners who will invest a large sum in the local economy: from $400 000 (R4 248 000) in Greece to $15 million in the United Kingdom. But they still have to live in the country in question for up to five years before getting their citizenship and passport.

A U.S. passport is no longer so desirable, because U.S. tax and reporting requirements apply to American citizens no matter where they live in the world. Moreover, it’s getting easier to obtain an EU passport. Last November, Malta, the smallest EU member, announced a programme that skips the residence requirement and simply sells Maltese passports to “high-value” individuals who are willing to pay €650 000 (R9 442 065). It’s a reasonable price for a passport that confers the right to live and work almost anywhere in Europe and offers a visa waiver for travel to the United States. There was an outcry by offended Maltese patriots, but they were mollified when Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s government raised the price to €1,15 million. So now we know the real value of an EU passport.

Who buys these passports? Mostly rich Chinese. Any EU passport gives its holder the right to live anywhere and work anywhere in 28 countries with a total population of over 500 million people. It is the principle of free movement that makes it so valuable, and no amount of protest by “Little Englanders” on the right of British politics is going to change that.

• Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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