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19 February 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:37pm

Whether to leave or stay in Europe is a far bigger question than the substance of David Cameron’s deal

Our EU membership is not tied up with migration, but it is tied up with British jobs, economic growth, and the security of our country. These are not trivial matters. But right now they are being ruthlessly sidelined in favour of an irrational obsession with a totally different issue.

By Richard Corbett

Both sides of the EU debate have become obsessed by entirely the wrong question, and it’s increasingly frightening.

You only have to look at this week’s headlines on Europe to see it. Monday’s Independent: “Corbyn prepares to attack Cameron on demand for emergency brake on EU migration”. Tuesday’s Guardian: “Cameron can’t hit EU migration emergency break for 18 months”. Wednesday’s Express: “Cameron faces new watering-down of migrants benefits curb”. Thursday’s Times: “EU migrant workers top 2m in blow to Cameron”.

Migration is a hot topic in the United Kingdom at the moment. And I don’t mean to be at all dismissive of people’s concerns about it. Quite the opposite: I understand that it’s high on the list of worries for many voters. There are some real, practical difficulties on the ground in areas which have experienced high levels of inward migration in recent years. Resources are stretched, take-home pay could be under pressure, jobs are thin on the ground. I understand that many people are unhappy and frustrated, and they deserve to be listened to.

The problem, as usual, is not with the voters. It’s with how we politicians have responded. Have we taken the time to listen to people’s real concerns? Have we investigated the real causes of the problems they describe? Have we put forward positive proposals which could address these issues — or have we just gone along with the headlines?

By now, we could have cracked down on unscrupulous employers who drive down wages by underpaying newly-arrived workers who aren’t familiar with the system. By now, we could have directed a share of the windfall the exchequer receives from hardworking EU taxpayers into boosting public services in those areas which are experiencing particular difficulties. By now, we could have outlawed the despicable practice adopted by some employment agencies who advertise British jobs in Poland but not in the local job centre.

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Have we done any of these things? We have not. What we’ve done instead, as a political class, is thrash around for a scapegoat. And – through a combination of laziness and cowardice – the scapegoat we’ve settled on is the European Union.

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It was not always so. When David Cameron first outlined his proposal to seek EU reforms and then hold an in/out referendum, his speech contained several rough-cut reform ideas. Most of these have survived in some form or another in the draft deal that European prime ministers and presidents are discussing. But conspicuous by its absence from that original speech was any mention of immigration.

Yet this is the very theme which, under intense pressure from the right wing of the Tory party and Ukip, has now become nothing short of an obsession for Cameron.

On a purely rational reading, this obsession is wrongheaded. Citizens of other EU countries are actually in a minority among migrants in Britain: most overseas-born UK residents are from further afield, and it’s entirely up to us how we handle them. Meanwhile, within the EU, the principle of free movement is entirely reciprocal, meaning there are almost as many Brits living in other EU countries as there are other Europeans living here. And while many British ex-pats in Europe are retired folk — sunning themselves on Mediterranean coasts and enjoying their right to draw on local public health facilities — most EU workers in the UK are young, hardworking, recently educated at the expense of their home country, who now contribute a third more to the UK exchequer in taxes than they take out in benefits and public services combined. We may well be concerned about the loss of these people to their native countries, but we ought to be positively celebrating the contribution they make here.

If we want to take seriously people’s concerns about immigration, first and foremost we must be honest about what gives rise to those concerns. And if immigration is a problem, it is emphatically not an EU problem. It suits the right wing of the Tory party, and especially Ukip, to try to conflate the two continually in the public consciousness — but that strategy is dishonest and, for those of us who want to talk about the real European issues, counter-productive.

And it’s frightening that the conflation strategy is succeeding, because Britain’s European question is vitally important in its own right. Our EU membership is not tied up with migration, but it is tied up with British jobs, economic growth, and the security of our country. These are not trivial matters. But right now they are being ruthlessly sidelined in favour of an irrational obsession with a totally different issue.

Like it or not, the question on which Brits will be asked to vote later this year will not be about immigration. It will not even be about Cameron’s reforms, whatever our views on them may be. It will about something much more fundamental: the future of our country, and the kind of country we want it to be.

It’s time to recover our collective sanity, look past the distractions, and focus on the real issue.

Richard Corbett is deputy leader of the Labour group in the European parliament.