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Tom Richmond: The EU itself doesn't interest voters, but the issues it affects do

Tom_richmond Tom Richmond, a researcher at the Social Market Foundation think-tank and a columnist for Tory Radio, explains why the EU matters to the public more than they realise. The Lisbon Treaty was signed a month ago today.

If a week is a long time in politics then a month must be an eternity, and as we pass the one-month anniversary of the Lisbon Treaty being ratified by Parliament, the newspaper headlines have long forgotten the backlash from the public and the appalling breach of trust that saw Labour and the Liberal Democrats break their manifesto pledge on a referendum.  With the newspapers losing interest, the Lisbon Treaty having passed through the Commons and polls suggesting that only 3% of voters consider the EU to be an ‘important issue’, the obvious conclusion to reach is that the EU will not be a key battleground in the run-up to the next election – or will it?

According to an Ipsos MORI poll from February of this year, the seven most important issues facing this country are:

1. Crime / law and order;
2. Race relations / immigration;
3. The NHS;
4. The economy;
5. Education and schools;
6. Defence / terrorism;
7. Housing. 

For the sake of comparison, the EU is in 18th place, below petrol prices and the minimum wage.  Needless to say policymakers will be tempted to focus on the top items in the list, but this would ignore the reality of domestic and European politics.  Even though the public might not proclaim any great interest in the EU, Britain’s relationship with the EU remains the biggest debate of our generation as it feeds into virtually every policy debate. 

On crime and defence (numbers one and six in the list respectively), the inability to control our borders thanks to the EU has made us more vulnerable to criminal behaviour and terrorist activity than ever before.  Reports of an increasing number of murders and arrests related to foreign criminals are deeply troubling, and the lack of a Europe-wide agreement on sharing information means that we genuinely have no idea whether European criminals are living in this country. Furthermore, Britain’s decision in 2003 to stop sex offenders travelling abroad was not imitated by other European nations – some of which don’t even have sex offender registers.  Add to this our failure to deport many foreign criminals, alarming levels of human trafficking and the ease of transporting illegal drugs when you have open borders within the EU, and the problems become even more serious.

On immigration (number two on the list), the lack of restrictions on movement is viewed positively by the government but the figures do not support their rhetoric.  In fairness, there is little hard evidence on the impact of immigration at a neighbourhood and community level. Nonetheless, almost 250,000 people moved to the UK from the EU in 2006 and claiming that such a rapid influx of EU citizens does not adversely affect community and race relations is laughable.  The NHS (number three) does not record the nationality of those who receive treatment, but again it is absurd to argue that the NHS will not have been hampered by having to deal with the rising demand.  It is worth entertaining the possibility that the increase in hospital waiting lists under Labour may be related at some level to immigration.   

Schools (number five) have been feeling the strain of immigration for years with Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, saying that “there is a feeling among some of our members that this is out of control and unpredictable”.  Let us not forget the abuse of the benefit system as well - Philip Hammond MP pointed out last year that 14,000 migrants from new EU member states were claiming benefits for children who did not even live in Britain. In addition to this, the pressure on housing (number seven) will be immense if the predicted arrival of six million migrants by 2031 – albeit from around the globe – is anywhere near the mark.

Just a few days ago, the House of Lords delivered a damning verdict of the economic benefits of our immigration policy (number four).  The government’s claim that GDP has risen by £6 billion thanks to migrant workers deliberately sidesteps the more effective measure of GDP per capita – which shows a negligible and possibly negative effect of immigration on the UK.  New measures to curb immigration from non-EU countries is a sensible strategy, although the Lisbon Treaty hints at the desire to develop ‘common policies’ for asylum and immigration, potentially robbing the UK of this scheme in future.

In essence, the low position of the EU in the list of voter concerns reflects two things: firstly, the Ipsos MORI poll asked about the importance of the ‘Common Market / EU / Europe / EURO’, thereby mixing a range of essentially detached questions; and secondly, the EU is continually treated as a solitary matter instead of being discussed in terms of its relationship with other policy areas.  So why do politicians not introduce the EU into debates on immigration, crime, education etc?  The Conservative Party has an uncomfortable history with the EU over the past decade and David Cameron must be desperate to avoid getting dragged into an internal struggle on this divisive subject.  Perhaps the sensitive and complicated nature of the debate also makes politicians wary of becoming embroiled in a slanging match that inevitably raises some very tough questions.   

Even if politicians would rather keep the debate over our membership of the EU at arms length, the list of concerns held by voters show that it is a debate that must be had.  It doesn’t matter if you worship the EU as an institution or would rather see the UK leave the EU altogether – the relevance of the EU is inescapable.


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