EUROPEAN DIARY: In Ireland, Libertas is campaigning to restrict freedom of movement, but in Poland its policy is different, writes JAMIE SMYTH
“SHURELY SHOME mishtake,” as Private Eye used to say. Declan Ganley’s pan-European, “pro-European” Libertas is calling for tough limits on the freedom of movement of workers?
Libertas, which is running aggressive European election campaigns in Poland, Latvia and the Czech Republic, apparently wants to prevent citizens from these countries coming to work in Ireland. The party’s Ireland East candidate, Raymond O Malley, told Today FM last week that “you’ve got to stop the tide coming”.
Libertas’s Caroline Simons later said limits were needed to “reduce the burden to Ireland of caring for inhabitants of other member states” and proposed making all EU citizens apply for a “blue card” to work in other states.
The proposal calls into question one of the EU’s four fundamental freedoms; the other three are free movement of capital, services and goods. And it’s not easy to square with the fact that the Galway-based businessman was a migrant himself in Britain during the 1980s and now pops up regularly in EU capitals to canvass for votes or clinch business deals.
Libertas’s attempt to make immigration a campaign issue may well reflect the fact that its candidates in Dublin and Ireland East are barely registering in polls. Perhaps it feels it needs to make bolder and more extreme statements to capture public attention.
But there is a danger that suggesting migrants from Poland, Latvia and other EU states have become a burden on the State might inflame racial tensions in Ireland at a difficult economic time.
Raising fears about immigration was a key campaign tactic of Libertas’s spin doctor Lynton Crosby in past Australian and British elections. He is credited with coining the slogan, “We decide who comes into this country”, for the 2001 Australian elections and with advising prime minister John Howard when he refused entry to a Norwegian ship carrying 400 Afghan asylum seekers who had been rescued from a sinking ship.
In Australia, playing the immigration card worked for Crosby, helping Howard win four successive elections.
He brought this get tough on immigrants stance to Europe when he advised Conservative leader Michael Howard to make it a campaign issue during the 2005 general election.
He failed to make an impact in that campaign, but returned from Australia to help Boris Johnson win last year’s election to become mayor of London.
Critics will say Simons’s suggestion that the Government should ask its 26 EU partners to renegotiate one of the EU’s four fundamental freedoms is a cynical piece of electioneering that could undermine the union’s internal market – so critical to Ireland’s economy.
Re-establishing visas for EU citizens to work in other member states could cause a major headache for the thousands of Irish living and working in other parts of Europe.
And what about the Irish companies, such as AIB and CRH, that have bought up firms in new member states like Poland? If we want to close our borders to Polish citizens, should our firms be allowed to repatriate profits to their Irish parents from subsidiaries?
Under Simons’s proposed “blue card” system, migrant workers from other EU states would be able to work in Ireland for two years. Yet, although paying taxes to the Irish exchequer, they would not receive any health or social benefits, which would remain the responsibility of their home country within the union. This would strip away a core right enjoyed by European citizens when they travel abroad.
So should Spain get tough on the thousands of Irish homeowners on the Costa del Sol and make them fly home for treatment if they sprain an ankle on the golf course or suffer sunburn on the beach?
The new Libertas policy may also cause confusion internally. In Poland, the party is campaigning on a platform to remove the remaining EU limits on free movement of workers.
At the launch of Libertas Poland in February, Artur Zawisza and Daniel Pawlowiec criticised “the egoistic policy of the two Germanic countries” (Germany and Austria) for not opening their labour markets to Poles. This is “unacceptable to Poles”, they said.
Now, however, their Irish colleagues in Libertas want to reimpose barriers. Polish newspapers picked up on Libertas’s plan yesterday, with the daily Rzeczpospolita running a front-page story under the headline, “Irish Libertas wants to limit influx of Poles”.
Gazeta Wyborcza’s European correspondent wrote in her blog that Ganley had now given up his “rather liberal (free market, I mean) economic outlook”.
The apparent contradictions will certainly provide ammunition to the party’s critics.
This is the “pro-European” party that snuggles up to the continent’s most prominent Eurosceptics, the party that campaigns in one country to restrict the rights of other EU citizens to travel abroad to work and in another to remove existing restrictions on working abroad, and the party that calls on MEPs to reveal their expenses while dragging its feet over revealing the sources of its own funding.
The Polish media have got wind of Libertas’ plan to stem the tide of Eastern Europeans coming to Ireland to work. The daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita carries a front page story on Libertas’ Caroline Simons’ suggestion that a new “blue card” (visa) system should be introduced to “reduce the burden to Ireland of caring for inhabitants of other member states”.
Gazeta Wyborcza’s EU correspondent also notes on her blog that Ganley appears to have given up his “rather liberal (free-market I mean) economic outlook”. The policy won’t go down well in Poland where Libertas Poland is campaigning to remove the last remaining restrictions on freedom of movement of workers in Germany and Austria. The restrictions on working abroad (seven years is the maximum allowed under EU rules) introduced by many old member states when the ten new states joined the Union in 2004 has been a constant irritant for relations between old and new Europe.
The get tough on immigration policy peddled by Simons and her Libertas colleague Raymond O Malley bears all the hallmarks of Libertas spin doctor Lynton Crosbie, who helped John Howard win four Australian elections by raising fears about asylum seekers.
Judging by the Irish Times poll last week, which showed Simons on 1 per cent, O’Malley on 3 per cent and Ganley on 9 per cent, Libertas have decided they must plumb the depths of populism to stand any chance of making an impact. But the contradictions in their platform are beginning to stack up.
Ganley says he is pro-European yet he cuddles up to the continent’s most prominent eurosceptics. He says he supports the EU’s internal market but then his Irish candidates say they want to stop freedom of movement. He calls on MEPs to publish their expenses yet drags his feet over saying how Libertas is funded.
This all begs the question: can we believe anything he says?
PS Thanks to Mark for tipping me off that Libertas candidate Vladimir Zelezny will continue to stand in the European elections in the Czech Republic despite his conviction for tax evasion last week. He did tender his resignation but it was not accepted by the Libertas council, according to the Czech media.