David Cameron has just announced who will be able to vote in the forthcoming EU Referendum. The rules will exclude EU citizens who have settled in the UK, even if they've been here for a decade or more. This has some affinities with his proposed changes to welfare legislation, which would make it impossible for EU migrants to Britain to claim welfare for the first four years.
The 'principle' here seems to be that only British-born citizens have a moral right to decide on Britain's relationship to Europe. The problem here is that this is exactly the sort of narrow nationalistic thinking, turning its back on the international, global forces that connect us, that the EU was formed to transcend. It's a decision that has built into it a kind of anti-EU bias. The decision's actually been taken as an offering to Cameron's Eurosceptic wing and the right-wing press. (Imagine how the Daily Mail would react to 1m EU migrants in Britain having a say in Britain's future! Oh wait, you don't have to imagine.)
And the Eurosceptics have seized on this decision with relish. John Redwood and Liam Fox have claimed that to include EU migrants would be to 'hijack' the referendum and would be an 'unacceptable dilution of the voice of the British people'. No arguments, you notice, just the assertion of these political opinions as if they were simple facts. In fact, it's a systematic exclusion of a substantial part of the electorate who have real experience of the benefits of the EU and its principled support for the free movement of people. It significantly increases the chance of Brexit.
But EU migrants pay their taxes. (The evidence, actually, is that as a group they pay way more in taxes than they receive in benefits.) The great slogan of the American Revolution was 'no taxation without representation' - the principle that it is fundamentally unjust for a government to tax its citizens without being democratically accountable to them. So why should EU migrants not have a say in the future of the country to which they pay their taxes and in which, let's remember, they have chosen to settle? Notice that UK emigrants to Europe will get the vote: people who have chosen to leave Britain who may have spent 15 years in Spain will have more say over the future of this country than somewhere who has lived and worked and paid taxes here for a lifetime.
Here's a thought, Mr Cameron. To be consistent, why not announce this: EU migrants will not be able to claim benefits for four years - but nor will they be required to pay tax or National Insurance contributions. This would be a real incentive to promote movement in the workforce, encourage the job market to be as mobile as that for goods and services; it would reward people for their incentive in upping sticks and finding new employment in the place that's right for them. It would provide a motivation to move that would counterbalance the inertia of home and familiarity.
Of course this would only work if there were reciprocal arrangements across Europe or we'd be a magnet for tax-avoidance, and I know you hate that. There would also have to be recompense for the tax loss this would produce for the Treasury or there wouldn't be any welfare to withhold; businesses would benefit hugely from this liberated job market, because they'd suddenly get more access to the skilled workforce from right across the continent, so it would be reasonable to expect them to pick up the shortfall.
In addition, if the quid pro quo for avoiding tax is to not benefit from our welfare system, that should apply to businesses too. Any business that avoids paying its full corporation tax in this country should also not get any kinds of benefit from the government: they should have to pay directly for any treatment their employees receive on the NHS and child benefit too; if they lay their workers off, they'll have to pay their unemployment benefits; if their employees are entitled to Housing Benefit, they'll have to provide that; and a tax-avoiding business won't be eligible to reclaim maternity pay or sick pay or anything like that; I think these migrants would probably have to pay a supplement if they go to a subsidised theatre or concert hall. Fair's fair.
This is actually the sort of madness that comes out of right-wing think tanks all the time, demolishing tax and transferring the functions of the state to private enterprise. So David Cameron should like it.
But you can see the problem, can't you, Mr Cameron? Would it be a good idea to invite large numbers of people to enter the UK - whether migrants or businesses - who would have so little stake in the country? Maybe people and businesses would move here purely for the tax breaks and they'd have little care for the civil society everyone else is building. Excluding someone from taxation and representation is to disengage them from our common culture. That doesn't sound like the recipe for a healthy society.
But you can't have it both ways. How can we expect people to come here, contribute to the workforce, contribute to our culture, contribute to the Treasury, but still tell them they have no right to contribute to decisions about what this country should be?
I am lucky. I work in academia and I know hundreds of people - students, colleagues, fellow academics - who have come from the EU to Britain and made invaluable, extraordinary contributions. I'm talking about Peter Boenisch, Margherita Laera, Vicky Angelaki, Marilena Zaroulia, Sylwia Dobkowska, Marissia Fragkou, and more and more and more. These have demonstrated every bit as much commitment to this country as I ever have. Perhaps more so: I didn't choose to come here.
It's grotesque and immoral to exclude EU migrants from this debate. It's another grim sign of how much we will risk every time David Cameron has to pander to his lunatic fringe.