Two themes seem likely to play a central role in the real debate in the 2014 European elections; jobs and immigration, and, of course, they’re linked. The immigration debate has shifted in recent months from economic migrants entering the EU illegally, and the absence of any common immigration policy; to concerns focused on free movement of labor, crystallized this month by the lifting of the temporary restrictions on access to the labor market for Romanians and Bulgarians.
It is entirely appropriate that these issues not be ignored; the days when the parties of the centre-left or the centre-right could think that even to address them was somehow to pander to extreme right populists are over. But how to respond is another matter.
In the UK, the debate has been conditioned by the underestimate made in 2004 of those likely to come to the UK from the 10 East and Central European member states. This has undermined credibility about the numbers of Bulgarians and Romanians likely to come. Yes, of course, this time the UK is one of the last member states to be lifting these restrictions. Yes, Bulgaria and Romania have been members of the EU since 2007, and a significant number of mobile nationals are already working in other member states, particularly in Southern Europe. But just five months before the EP elections many voters believe that a surge is on its way, as Europe grapples with still exceptionally high levels of joblessness. And it impinges on the cost of living debate as well; low wages for non-nationals adding to the downward push on living standards.
Small wonder then that this conflation of immigration/free movement rates second among the concerns of British electors compared with membership of the EU which struggles outside the top ten subjects of concern. The strategists among the anti-Europeans have realized for some time that by concentrating on immigration they can keep Euroscepticism on the agenda, almost by proxy.
But the issue of free movement is now a hot topic in most of EU 15 countries, and the success of the populists has been to push the centre-right into calling for ever more curbs on free movement.
The centre-left has so far defended, albeit discreetly, the principle of free movement. The centre-right in different guises has started to shift. Recent declarations by CDU (Christian Democratic Union) politicians in Germany as well as by sections of the French UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) and elsewhere means that the UK government is not alone in venting these concerns. But any fundamental change such as a cap on numbers availing themselves of this right, beyond the flexibilities of the Citizenship Directive, requires an amendment to the Treaties, and that means unanimity, ratification in 28 parliaments and might even then fall foul of anti-discrimination principles.
The route preferred by most on the centre-left follows a different two-track approach. People have the right to move but have to be able to demonstrate that they can support themselves in their new country of residence. That’s what the Treaty and the Directive say and socialists in the Netherlands and the UK have not ruled out tightening national conditions concerning access to social security but within the scope of current EU legislation.
The real problem is that current rules are corrupting this fundamental right, particularly the Posted Workers Directive which allows employers to by-pass national social and employment standards by importing cheap labour temporarily, and the Agency Workers directive which uses third parties, not covered by national provisions, as employment intermediaries. This is a form of social dumping and discriminates against nationals in their own member states.
So the first strand is to amend this legislation in the name of equal pay for equal work, and ensure conformity with national labour law and social rights. The socialist government in Paris succeeded last December in getting a majority in Council to agree in principle to amend the current Posted Workers Directive. Labour is pushing for a revision of the Agency Workers Directive. Both changes look set to make it into the European Socialist manifesto. Of course there are also illegal employment practices which have similar or worse effects. Labour inspection at European and national level needs strengthening.
The second strand of the battle against social dumping is to recognize the motivation behind large scale movements of workers, such as that which occurred in 2004; that is the huge disparities in social standards and pay spurring people to take their chances in other member states and leading to possible strains on housing and education if not properly managed. The medium-term answer to this must be to promote a steady rise in Europe-wide minimum social provision including a European system of national minimum wages which can halt this race to the bottom.
This debate, either chipping away at the basic right to freedom of movement or tackling social dumping as one of the real causes of declining living standards on the other will be central to the 2014 EP elections. Martin Schulz, the Socialist standard-bearer has been clear and vocal, both in his defense of the principle of free movement and in his support for higher general social standards throughout the EU. We will see what the candidates from the EPP and ALDE say when they are chosen, but the signs are that on the conservative side the message will be more opaque.
This is an important debate and an utterly relevant one for the 2014 elections where the result will matter.
The author is Former Secretary General of European Parliament. This commentary was first published on the website of centre-left think tank Policy Network.