Cameron's prescriptions for Europe miss the point (again)

The Prime Minister wants to talk about growth, but recognising the impact of German plans for collec

David Cameron wants Britain to play an integral role in reforming the European Union. He really does. His speech in Davos today explained how he is committed to reviving the continent's flagging economies with an agenda for boosting growth - deregulation; liberalisation, competitive taxation.

This is a familiar tune. Britain's position under Labour wasn't so very different - accepting a degree of political integration as the necessary price for creating an open, free trading space of continental scale and hoping, over time, to make that space look more like the UK economy and less like the French one.

The problem now, as I wrote in my column this week, is that the kind of diplomacy that is required actually to drive that agenda in the European Council - involving compromise, long-term nurturing of relationships with EU leaders; demonstrations of commitment to the European project - is also the kind of behaviour that the Conservative party generally finds unacceptable in a leader. In other words, Cameron can say this stuff, but he is no closer to getting it done if he can't build the strategic majorities among fellow EU member states to make it happen.

But there is another problem. Cameron's analysis of the EU's growth problems necessarily has to exclude discussion of the effect on demand of choreographed mass austerity - to concede that point would be to admit that the same force is in play in Britain. But clearly this is an issue. In his speech, the Prime Minister praised efforts by eurozone countries to bring their public finances under control - the drive for a fiscal compact led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel - but warned that it was not enough. He encourages the single currency bloc to consider issuing euro-bonds and effecting transfers between states - a true fiscal union, in other words. He essentially told Merkel to dip into her budget to save the euro.

If Cameron understands the inadequacy of Merkel's plans at the level of budget imbalances inside the eurozone, why does he not understand the related problem of German-enforced austerity for the continent draining aggregate demand? Why does he insist on offering only long-term supply-side solutions to the problem of European growth? The answer, I suspect, is that the government does understand the issue but it is taboo because of the coalition's political commitment to make austerity a morally inviolate part of domestic economic policy.

There was a meeting last week of the Franco-British Colloque - a top-level club of politicians, academics, business leaders etc to discuss cross-channel issues. It meets annually and this time the gathering was held in the UK. George Osborne was there and, someone who was present tells me, in the discussions of the EU's growth problem, the Chancellor effectively acknowledged the macroeconomic case against collective European austerity. He simply couldn't accept that it was relevant to the policies he is deploying in Britain. Treasury economists will surely be telling him the same thing: Merkel's fetish for fiscal conservatism is going to drag Europe down.

If Cameron wants to take a lead in promoting growth in Europe he could start by making that point. He can't of course, at least not without repudiating the central tenet of his government's economic policy.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.