The crises of mass migration and Greek debt have hit the European Union like an “an out-of-control bulldozer”, forcing its leaders to rethink David Cameron’s call for fundamental reform, the cabinet’s leading Eurosceptic has said.
The work and pensions secretary said: “We are getting a better hearing because people are waking up to these things. It is suddenly becoming clear that actually you cannot paper over the cracks and say ‘it’s alright, it’s only the British.’ We still have the crisis over the euro and Greece, and then the rows over Schengen border controls are like nothing I have ever seen. It is massive.”
The two crises had sent “shock waves everywhere”, he said. “Nothing is the same after this thing. The European Union has just been hit by an out-of-control bulldozer that has just gone straight through the middle of them.”
Duncan Smith, a member of the EU negotiations cabinet committee, claimed the Germans were “petrified” of a British exit, adding that Cameron was receiving a warm welcome for his proposals behind closed doors.
Although he insisted “we are not there yet”, Duncan Smith’s remarks suggest there is a new optimism even in the Eurosceptic wing of the cabinet that the euro crisis, and the surge in refugees from the Middle East, is forcing EU leaders to think more fundamentally about free movement within the EU and the relationship between the countries in the eurozone and those that do not use the euro, probably the two most sensitive issues in the British renegotiation.
The crisis “exposes the system to what we have been saying about it. It just does not function. It does not work,” he said. “The backdrop is turmoil in Europe and most of the European nations say behind closed doors that they kind of agree with you and I think the prime minister has found that as he has gone round.”
While some Eurosceptics, such as Nigel Lawson, claim Cameron will win no significant concessions, Duncan Smith said the UK would not be tabling its specific demands until closer to the EU council meeting in December. He said he was “supremely relaxed” about the issue of collective cabinet responsibility in the referendum, describing it as “the last bridge you get to”.
Britain has abandoned demands to block free movement within the EU and instead wants a right to withhold in-work benefits for EU citizens for at least four years.
Duncan Smith said he detected a change in the climate prompted by the numbers seeking asylum in Europe. “There is open revolt going on down in Germany now. The CSU [Christian Social Union] forced Angela Merkel to shut the border down in Munich because there were so many people coming through. I am told they they said to her ‘you shut it federally or we are going to shut it as Bavaria’. The CDU [Christian Democratic Union], her own party, is furious with her and worried because it needs to face elections. Her poll ratings are falling. There are massive shifts and anger in Germany.”
He claimed European leaders were realising they needed new systems of governance inside the eurozone. He argued: “It is becoming clear and obvious that this cannot sustain itself any longer between what the ins [euro users] want and the outs want and, all of a sudden, we are in the middle of a very serious debate about how you run a system when we do not need to be involved in half the things they do and want. They want deeper and closer. We don’t over here.”
Duncan Smith also used the interview to:
- work capability assessment (WCA), the much-criticised gateway to the main out-of-work disability benefit, the employment support allowance (ESA), which is claimed by 2.5 million people. The five-year-old WCA has been plagued by backlogs, lengthy appeals and, according to Duncan Smith, is too binary in deciding whether someone is fit or not fit for work.
- Defend the planned removal of an income measure from the child poverty target, saying it is better to measure and target the underlying causes of poverty such as educational attainment and family stability.
- Reject criticisms of his department’s benefit sanctions system, saying he did not know of any jobcentre staff “flinging around sanctions”. He said: “There are a bunch of Labour MPs who hate sanctions and they don’t want them at all. I can understand that. I don’t agree with it because I think our system is predicated on this idea that there is a deal taking place.”The number of jobseeker allowance (JSA) sanctions has gone down by 380,000 over the past year to 507,000.
- Claim the Tory conference in Manchester would be about “hope and security”, insisting the party did not need to change course because of Labour’s shift to the left, but simply deliver.
Discussing his next planned wave of changes, Duncan Smith admitted the WCA, which has been condemned as demeaning by its critics, suffered from design faults and “perverse incentives”.
He said: “It is very binary. You still have to decide is somebody well enough to work full time or too sick to work at all. My point is that, when you get down to it, at the fundamental heart of it lies a single flaw, which is that it is an absolute.
“My sense was if you just looked at disability living allowance, that doesn’t reach the same absolute. The test is not about ‘can you work or can’t you work?’ It is looking at your condition and deciding on what level was your condition.”
He believes that once ESA is integrated into universal credit, probably in the second half of the parliament, it will be possible to provide a more personalised return-to-work plan and so see a reduction in the numbers claiming.
The Treasury points out that the number of JSA claimants has fallen by 700,000 since 2010, while the number of ESA claimants has fallen by 90,000. But with a £30 cut in the value of ESA for many claimants due in April 2017, some campaigners are distrustful of his changes.
This article was written by Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt, for theguardian.com on Friday 2nd October 2015 19.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010