European Citizens’ Dialogue - London - February 10th 2014
On Monday February 10th, I went to the 44th European Citizens' Dialogue at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, London. The Citizens' Dialogue is a series of events taking place across Europe in the lead-up to the European Parliament elections in May, hosted by both European Commissioners and national ministers.
Members of the panel included the EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding and the UK Minister for Europe David Lidington. Citizens from all over the United Kingdom were able to participate in the event which was moderated by Financial Times Political Editor, George Parker. The future of Europe, citizens' rights and the recovery from the economic crisis were among the topics discussed.
The debate launched straight into the heart of the matter, with the audience questioned as to whether or not they felt their voices were heard in the European Union. The result was clear, with 44% voting no, 34% yes, and 22% on the fence.
Then a member of the audience pointed out the harsh juxtaposition of the UK wishing to withdraw from the EU while Ukrainian citizens are fighting for their lives to enter the European Union. Viviane Reding stated that she completely understood the people’s wish to be part of the EU as it was the only route to freedom and democracy. She described the EU as “a magnate to Eastern Europe due to its values: Freedom of movement for capital, for goods and services, and for citizens.”
European Parliament Elections 2014
In answer to the question “Will you be voting at the Parliamentary Elections for 2014?” 89% of the audience responded Yes, 2% No and 4% were indecisive. A positive point, but surely biased as the people attending the event are by definition interested in Europe.
A member of the audience pointed out that there was a clear lack of information and discussion about the European elections and Europe in general. Most British people seem uninterested in Europe as a subject or perceive it as a threat because of the “distorted truths” perpetuated by the majority of the media. Viviane Reding said Brussels had even been blamed for Britain's recent floods: "I didn't know I'm so powerful that I can make the rain fall[sic]" she said.
She stated that she was appalled by this lack of debate and awareness about the European Union. British people need to know that "the most powerful parliament in Europe is the European Parliament: Seventy per cent of the laws in this country (UK) are co-decided with the European Parliament."
At the European Parliament elections in May, British citizens will be able to take part in the crucial vote on which course Europe will take in the next few years. But before making a decision, they need to be well-informed, that is to say, presented with accurate facts and figures. Ms Reding mentioned the Europe Direct website, which receives and replies to more than one million questions per year.
Immigration and Welfare
A member of the audience pointed out that the influx of migrants from Eastern European countries to the UK in the last few years has created tension among British citizens. Immigration is high on the list of UK voters' concerns because of perceived pressure on jobs, housing and schools in certain areas. The current government wishes to implement new laws to weaken the freedom of movement and therefore reduce immigration. Ms Reding, however, said: “You can’t have the single market without the free movement of people: You can’t have free movement of services and capital, but not of persons. You can't have the right to establish your companies in Bucharest or Sofia but not accept workers from Romania and Bulgaria working in your country.”
In order to counter Eurosceptic arguments and end migrants’ scapegoating, she quoted statistics that showed that the majority of EU migrants in the UK "came to work, they're net contributors" and are essential to the country. Speaking on benefits tourism, she said that “the EU law very clearly states your rights & obligations to move. It isn’t a free movement into welfare”. Indeed, recent statistics show that 93% of the UK's benefits go to UK nationals, 4.8% to non-EU migrants, while EU migrants make up just 2.1% of welfare recipients.
Ms Reding stated that 77% of the EU migrants come to the UK to work, while the comparable figure for Britons is 72% and for non-EU migrants it is 60%,. There will always be people who abuse the system, but this won’t be solved by creating scapegoats. The solution is to “catch the ones who abuse the system and leave the others in peace”.
She also quoted recent UK figures that show that only 0.4% of EU citizens migrate inside the EU and that the UK is the biggest exporter of people among all 28 member states with around 2.2 million people. This opens a question: If Britain decides to leave the EU, what will happen to those Britons? Fortunately, the Conservative party isn’t there yet, as David Lidington's final remark proves: “I think membership overall is in the United Kingdom's national interest, but I believe the EU does need some serious reforms, not just in this country's interest, but in the interest of every single member state throughout this continent.”
So Britain, are you aware of the facts? Are you well informed? Are you ready to vote in the 2014 European Elections?
UKREN Project Assistant
- Watch the debate here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/europe-26118705
- Find a Citizens' Dialogue near you: http://ec.europa.eu/debate-future-europe/