Article by John Springford
After a year of deliberation, the country’s government has come up with a more modest proposal to close the border if immigration from the EU runs higher than an as-yet-unspecified threshold. It has proved unwilling to be specific in public about its plans: if the government demanded a threshold that was high, the Swiss people would feel cheated – but if it was low, the EU would never accept it. The same dilemma faces Cameron. He rejected the idea of a safeguard clause – a kite that senior Conservatives had flown for him before his immigration speech – after Merkel made it plain that she would not accept any limits on the freedom of movement, although the EU would listen to proposals to restrict migrants’ access to benefits. And Brussels will – and should – play hardball with the Swiss to discourage the British, as well as France, Sweden and Denmark who are having similar anxieties about European migration.
This isn’t just stubbornness, or a federalist insistence on integration for its own sake. The EU is simply a grand bargain, in which member-states hope to offer up sovereignty for mutual benefit. This requires that the demands of poorer countries, which have migrants who want to profit from their labour, be balanced with those of richer ones, which have export sales and investments that they can profit from in poorer countries. If a country seeks to withdraw from some parts of the bargain that it does not like, there must be consequences, or the whole thing will unravel.
And migration is probably the biggest benefit in a club beset by economic problems that are largely of its own making. It is the policy the EU should be most proud of: for central and eastern Europe, it is the biggest advancement of liberty since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Central and eastern Europeans’ incomes can triple by moving to the UK – and the evidence shows that they do negligible damage to low-skilled Britons’ employment prospects. A stream of young, well-educated, easy-to-integrate and hard-working people does wonders for western European countries’ public finances, and helps to fill jobs as baby boomers retire.