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By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

The economy is shrinking, unemployment is soaring, insecurity is rife – no wonder people are angry. As wildcat strikes against foreign workers spread across Britain, people who fear for their own jobs may feel sympathetic. But however understandable the strikers' emotions may be, they have got it all wrong.

Foreign workers are not responsible for the mess we're in; the financial crisis is. Blame bankers (British and foreign), finger blase regulators and blinkered politicians, spread responsibility among everyone who piled on debt and gambled on house prices – but don't scapegoat Italian oil workers.

Nor would kicking out foreign workers create more jobs for British people. The notion that there is a fixed number of jobs to go around is a nonsense. Workers (foreign or otherwise) not only take jobs, they also create them. Gordon Brown should have known better than to legitimise the old National Front canard of "British jobs for British workers" in his 2007 conference speech. He should eat his words.

Fewer foreigners around would mean even less spending in the shops, and so cost British people their jobs. Chucking foreign employees out would cause further dislocation to businesses already struggling with shrivelled credit and collapsing demand. It would play havoc with public services, depriving patients of doctors and nurses, the elderly of carers, and children of teachers. It would plunge the economy into an even bigger hole – and we'd end up with fewer jobs for British people, not more.

Let's be clear: if British workers are being discriminated against in Lindsey or elsewhere, that is unacceptable. It would be a breach of both British and EU law. But there is no evidence of that. What the strikers appear to want is that foreign workers be discriminated against – and that too is unacceptable.

The free movement of labour is not only economically beneficial and morally right, it is a legal requirement of EU membership. If Britain were to discriminate against other European workers, what is to stop other EU countries discriminating against British ones? Some 2 million Brits are thought to work in another EU country – do we want to put their jobs at risk too?

During the boom years when the pound was overvalued, Britain attracted workers from around the EU. But with the UK economy now predicted to be hardest hit by the global recession, Brits may feel tempted to seek work on the continent. That's what happened when unemployment reached 3 million in the 1980s, as workers similar to the brickies who featured in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet sought work in Germany and elsewhere.

Pundits and politicians are forever intoning that we must not fall prey to protectionism. Barricading ourselves off from outsiders leads not to salvation, but to economic depression and political extremism. That's one reason why the EU, with its single market, impartial regulations and common political institutions, is so important. Reverting to a policy of each to his own, beggar-thy-neighbour, and devil take the hindmost, would cause the EU to unravel.

That would delight Europhobic Tories, Ukip, the BNP, MigrationWatch and a host of rancid fellow-travellers. But the trade union and wider Labour movement should have no truck with it. Solidarity does not stop at the water's edge. The EU is a champion of workers' rights. And if the flaws of financial globalisation are to be fixed – and climate change curbed – it will be in partnership with Europe, not against it.

Now of all times Derek Simpson, Jon Cruddas and others on the left should not be making common cause with what Peter Mandelson has rightly called "the politics of xenophobia".

Posted 04 Feb 2009 in Published articles

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