Friends with Benefits

As Oscar Wilde wrote of one of the characters in Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears….of laughter.” And this week, although it fell far short of Dickens’s literary achievements, one of the Polish foreign minister’s tweets on Twitter brought tears to my eyes.

Certainly as probably the only member of the Polish government who was actually taught to think at university (that’s the great advantage of the Oxford tutorial system) one might have expected something rather better albeit that the 140 word limit may have been unduly restrictive. What appeared on 6th January was this: “If Britain gets our taxpayers, shouldn’t it also pay their benefits? Why should Polish taxpayers subsidize British taxpayers’ children?”

Why indeed? Except, of course, they do not. As one of the largest net contributors to the EU budget the British are already subsidizing Poland, the largest net recipient of EU largesse. And that is ignoring the fact that the UK was one of only three EU members to allow Poles unrestricted access to the UK in 2004 when Poland joined the EU. In effect, this allowed Poland to export its unemployment but such is the ineptitude of successive Polish governments that despite the boasting (the Polish prime minister’s word, not mine) that the Poland is the only EU economy to have avoided a recession, unemployment is still 13.4 per cent. Yesterday Donald Tusk claimed that by 2022 Poland would be among the 20 richest countries in the word “thanks to funds from the 2014-2020 EU budget pool”. As Winston Churchill might have put it: some taxpayers, some subsidy.

Of course this spat, in which Donald Tusk could not resist becoming involved, arose because David Cameron had the temerity, responding to widespread public concern (democratic accountability is not really a continental European thing, as you might have noticed) to suggest that paying child benefit to workers who children reside abroad should not continue. When I consulted the Ministry of Truth’s website (that’s the EU’s Mutual Information System on Social Protection to those of you not fluent in Orwellian Newspeak) it appeared that only five EU member states – the UK, Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia and the Netherlands – allow the payment of child benefit abroad; in the remaining 23 the child must be resident in that country in order to qualify for child allowances. Nevertheless, David Cameron’s mention of Poland specifically (which was inevitable given the numbers involved – about 700,000 Poles are thought to live in Britain, with hundreds of thousands more working temporarily) gave rise to the usual coalition of the thin-skinned.

In addition to Sikorski and Tusk and opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Jan Bury, the parliamentary leader of the Polish People’s party, which is a junior member of the governing coalition, called on Poles to boycott Tesco saying “We cannot stand inactive and watch while prime minister Cameron repeatedly insults Poles and attacks Polish families” which, of course, David Cameron did not do. Ironically, a boycott of Tesco would harm only Poles: Tesco has invested more than €2bn in Poland since 1995 and is one of the country’s larger retailers, with more than 400 shops. The shops are full of Polish produce and you generally look in vain to find any British food products – indeed Tesco uses Poland a source of cheaper produce for its UK stores. Furthermore, Tesco in Poland is hiring workers on Polish wage rates to work in UK distribution centres, the type of agency worker arrangements which are used to overcome UK minimum wage arrangements. So Tesco in Poland hardly sees itself as a champion for the UK (after all they are into retailing not politics, as a spokesman was quick to point out) which makes Bury’s boycott even more futile. And today the vice-president of the European Commission Viviane Reding, effectively accused the Prime Minister and his Government of telling lies to the public to distract people from the real problems Britain faces. She seems to think that the large number of immigrants to the UK are a government myth to distract us from the creation of a United States of Europe, complete with Senate and with her and the other unaccountable and irremovable commissioners as the government. Well, if history has taught us anything is that when everybody tells you are wrong, you are most likely right, so David Cameron should stand fast.

Be that as it may, the simple fact is that the mass movements of population within Europe have had an impact both in the countries having to deal with these unexpected influxes and equally those that are facing the devastation of depopulation and loss of skills. The population of Warsaw grew by only 5,000 in 2013 and, as I wrote last time, the country is faced by rapidly aging population and an alarming decrease in the numbers of young people. No wonder Sikorski, et al, are cross. His tweet – once you have stopped laughing – should be seen as an expression of impotent rage: “Go if you must but please at least remember to send back the child benefit with the post card.” If I were a Pole I would be embarrassed that a foreign minister could make such an undignified outburst and be angry that successive Polish governments have continued to leave so many folk with the feeling that they have no option other than to try their luck elsewhere. Indeed, Radek Sikorski himself was granted political asylum in the UK in 1982 and British citizenship in 1987 (since renounced to pursue his political career in Poland). More than 2 million Poles have left to find work in western Europe since Poland joined the EU (the majority to the UK), which is the largest migration from any of the new member states. Polish politicians must feel under immense pressure to defend Poles abroad because almost every Polish family has been affected by this massive vote of confidence in their policies and like to potray the exodus as a benefit they are kindly bestowing on the rest of the EU. The tragedy fir them is that, even on a bad day, David Cameron seems to provide more for jobs for Poles than Donald Tusk. We all deserve better of our governments especially, it seems, the Poles.

What is needed now is a rational discussion of immigration, social benefits and how rules which were designed for 6 similar countries in 1955 can be applied for 28 very different countries in 2014 and beyond. That is beyond the scope of this piece other than to say that mass immigration is not wholly beneficial for any country and in arguments about national wealth and GDP, the key issue is what happens to GBP per head even if overall GDP rises. Nobody should blame Poles – or anybody else – from wanting to seize opportunities wherever they are and nobody should blame the UK government for trying to deal with the profound impact of mass immigration on the UK.

As ever, there may be a simpler explanation. Perhaps Dave has only just sent Radek his share of the bill for the damage from their last Bullingdon Club outing together.

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