The economic fallout from the COVID-19 lockdown seems likely to be the cause of another populist backlash in Europe.
Populism in Europe is ugly. Historically, being a populist on the continent has consisted of bashing different groups: elites, immigrants, minorities, and benefit ‘scroungers’. Hammering these separate groups, perhaps literally in some cases, always draws some sympathy. But real success comes when populists find messages which bash multiple groups at the same time.
Most often, this strategy has resulted in immigrants being portrayed as lazy and immoral, leaving their countries of birth with the sole purpose of claiming benefits in whichever country they decide to settle. The populist solution? Prevent immigrants from making claims on state benefits. This chauvinistic tactic, whilst electorally attractive, is misguided, and will not have the effect of downsizing Europe’s ballooning welfare states.
The populist claims that immigration and welfare spending have considerably increased since the 1980’s are both true. In the UK, the foreign-born population is now 13% (up from about 6% in the 1980’s), and annual social protection spending is now over twice as much as annual spending on education. Rising migration is not the only reason for increased social protection spending, but it is worth pointing out that importing labour from other countries comes not without problems for government finances. Even the most hardworking and zealous newcomers will need to use the NHS (United Kingdom National Health Service) when they fall ill, start a pension plan, and claim unemployment benefit if they are unlucky enough to lose their jobs.
In spite of this, there are two reasons to suspect that simply preventing immigrants from social protection money will not reduce the size of the welfare state. First, only a fraction of benefits claimants in the UK were born outside of the country. In 2017, only 7.4% of all unemployment benefit claims were made by non-UK nationals. This largely stems from the fact that most immigrants in the UK don’t claim benefits, and even if every migrant was prevented from doing so, as many European populist parties propose, only a small dent would be made in the social protection budget.
Whilst other European countries undeniably do have problems with unemployment among immigrants (35% of Sweden’s large foreign-born population is unemployed), chauvinistic welfare parties cannot claim to have an antidote to Europe’s oversized welfare states. Far from cutting social protection, many populists argue for increasing benefits for native families. In Italy, the short-lived Five Star-Lega coalition passed a massive basic income programme for poor families. France’s Front National wants to see an overall increase in social protection spending, as do the Sweden Democrats. For these parties, the native Swede or Frenchman who takes money from the state is presumably not lazy, merely unlucky, and deserving of help. Raising spending for these people would do far more harm to government finances than restricting benefits for immigrants would ever do them benefit.
Europe’s right-wing has clocked that the government has limited resources to house and care for people from other countries, but simultaneously seems to think that there are near-infinite resources to deal with the people already here. They start writing their manifestos in the guise of Douglas Murray and finish them as John McDonnell. Arguments about birth-right and justice aside, and trying to “look after our own”, there is at the centre of this type of agenda a massive inconsistency.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, government deficits across the world have skyrocketed, as have welfare claims. This spells disaster for public finances, and tough decisions lie ahead. If a proper discussion about the welfare state is to be had, there are going to be few easy answers. As spelt out in this article, the populist right is mendacious about the nature of the problems within the welfare state, and are far too quick to allow natives to abdicate responsibility for strains on the social safety net. Unfortunately, the political left, which in an era of mass unemployment may begin to make electoral headway, seem not to have the tools to discuss the problems of deficit spending and social protection at all. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has never come across a social ill which it thinks can’t be solved with more spending, and many European socialist movements now back an unconditional basic income.
The only sensible course of action is to recognise that whilst immigrants might stretch resources, it is us, the natives, that have allowed our protection programmes to balloon in size, far beyond their original remits. If we want to cut them, it’s our waste bands that will have to shrink. As I have said before in this column, real cuts to social protection are highly unlikely since they are by and large electorally intolerable. This is, of course, the reason why the populist right comes up with non-solutions like the ones mentioned above. At the time of writing, a fight is breaking out between 10 Downing Street, and the Chancellor next door in No 11. The subject? The future of the eye-wateringly expensive triple lock on pensions. Boris Johnson wants to keep the provisions in place. And as long as Europe’s conservative parties don’t bite the bullet, and cut expenditure, our deficits, and our debts, will continue to rise, and Johnson and Sunak certainly won’t be the ones footing the bill.
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