“Pure love and suspicion cannot dwell together: at the door where the latter enters, the former makes its exit.” The words of Alexandre Dumas. There has certainly been little love and plenty of suspicion in the relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom over the last 40 years of mission creep which, following months on phantom negotiation has resulted in a phantom deal on the basis of which the UK will hold a referendum on23rd June on whether the UK leaves or remains a member of the EU. And Poland?
Beata Szydło, the prime minister, said she is satisfied with the deal. “We have an agreement that is satisfactory for Poland, and that is satisfactory for the EU.” “It is an agreement that provides the opportunity for the EU to be developed together with Great Britain.” Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (the Visegrad group) had expressed opposition to the prospective cuts in benefits for EU migrants to the UK, but a compromise was reached and those already based in the UK will not have their in-work benefits reduced. A seven year ‘emergency brake’ on benefits may be phased in over a four-year-period, and David Cameron has been told the UK should have “full expectation of approval”, if London applies to introduce the changes.
Rather remarkably, on the question of child benefits paid to children not resident in the UK, Cameron was not able to achieve a complete cut, although the UK may pay the benefit level of the country in question, which as far as the Visegrad Group is concerned, is significantly lower. Which is feeble since, apart from the UK, only four other EU countries (Poland not among them) allow payments to be made to children abroad. So how Cameron managed not to achieve his stated aim in this area beggars belief.
Of course, the whole question of benefits is a red herring to the main issue which is the UK public’s dissatisfaction at forty years of being misled by politicians of all parties as to the nature of the European “project” and its implications for the UK, which dissembling has continued since David Cameron returned from Brussels brandishing his Chamberlainesque deal. “I believe Britain is stronger, safer and better off in a reformed European Union,” Cameron tweeted. Perhaps, but a reformed EU is not on offer and his deal, the thinnest of thin gruel, is not even legally binding and will only come into effect after the referendum provided that the UK votes to remain. At which point the EU powers that be (the EU parliament and the European Court of Justice, in my view) will not doubt ensure that it is dishonoured in full to punish the UK for having had the temerity to subject her continuing membership to the democratic vote.
Be that as it may, Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of opposition party Civic Platform (PO) party, told Polish Radio on Monday: “This is no success. It’s a failure.” He added: “If this is an enormous British success, it was at the expense of Poles living in Britain and those who will go and legally work there and [at the expense of] benefits for their children.”
And proof, if proof were needed, that the UK often takes the public flak for what others are also thinking in private, following the Brussels meeting the German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany might also reduce benefits for children from other EU countries. “We can consider [this issue] and carefully look into the numbers. Germany certainly pays a lot of child benefits to EU workers compared to other countries,” she said.
So where does this leave us? Well despite a certain amount of Polish paranoia that the UK government is out to get Poles (it isn’t and never was) the referendum issue will for most voters be rather simple: am I better off in or out. And this will largely depend on whether one is adversely affected by big businesses’ habit of flooding the labour market with cheap labour, whether one values the convenience of a weekend cottage in France, whether one takes a purist view of parliamentary sovereignty, and so on, because there is little doubt that the UK, defeatism apart, could thrive in or out.
Ultimately the problem is this: in 1973 Common market (as it then was, and should be today) invited the UK to a soccer match. The government of the day sold it to the electorate as a rugby match and the UK and EU have been playing with different shaped balls and goals ever since, while successive UK governments, denying the evidence to the contrary, trying to persuade us that all the balls are the same shape. Perhaps on 23rd June the final whistle will be blown?