I haven’t written much about Keelings here mainly because I’m a bit of a heretic on the subject, and my views on the underlying issue are totally at odds with those of Ben, and, let’s face it, most of you, the readers.
But my own views on the matter aren’t that important. What’s more important is whether Keelings have been, much like their strawberries might have been, left hung out to dry by our politicians. It certainly seems that way:
1/ The ability for migrant seasonal agriculture workers to continue harvesting fruit and vegetables in other member states was specifically requested by EU leaders, including the Taosieach Leo Varadkar, during a video conference on March 26.
— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) April 21, 2020
It’s quite one thing for the Taoiseach to go to Brussels and ask for permission for Irish companies to bring in seasonal workers. You probably don’t agree with him, and that’s fair enough, but from his point of view it was probably necessary to secure food supplies and the viability of an important agri-sector. Protest away, but at least he was acting in good faith.
But to go to Brussels, and ask for permission, and then, when people get upset, turn around and do this?
However, when asked about the workers at a briefing on Friday, the Department of Health’s chief medical officer, Tony Holohan, said he was not comfortable with the idea of a company chartering a flight to bring in staff.
He referred to “consistent public health advice” and said medical authorities would continue to keep the issue of travel on their agenda.
In a statement on Friday night, Mr Varadkar said he “shares the discomfort expressed” by Dr Holohan.
“We need to keep our airports and ports open so essential goods and essential workers can get in and out of the country and Irish citizens and residents can return home,” he said. “However, we need to keep travel to a minimum and ensure that passengers are interviewed on arrival and that quarantine is observed.
There’s a crumb of comfort in the spectacular hypocrisy here for all of you anti-globalists in the comments: Varadkar isn’t in favour of the EU wide free movement of people for any deep-set ideological reason; he’s in favour of it because it’s popular. The very moment that there was widespread public support for a nationalist position, he was out there flipping 180 degrees and ordering reviews like someone unsure what Netflix show to watch next.
Anyway, Varadkar’s terrible hypocrisy aside, he really should have had the courage of his convictions here and stuck to his original position. The nationalist argument on Keelings comes down to about two or three points, none of which really stand up to scrutiny:
- It’s an unacceptable risk, we can do without strawberries for one year
It’s true that we could probably do without strawberries for one year, but losing an entire year’s harvest means one of two choices: Either an entire sector of the economy goes bankrupt, or you end up paying for the strawberries anyway, via a bailout for the sector, without ever eating them. As for the risk? Well, would anybody be talking about the risk if we were importing 300 doctors from Bulgaria to treat Irish patients? The risk would be exactly the same, and the truth is that the risk doesn’t actually bother anybody, does it? It’s actually the perceived lack of reward for the risk that bothers people. An honest position for most of the people talking about the strawberry pickers would be “I don’t think strawberries are that important”. And fair enough, they’re not, to you. But to farmers and people depending on them for an income, they are. And the chances of you catching Coronavirus from a Bulgarian strawberry picker, I’ll take seriously when a lot of you can put your hands on your hearts and say that you’ve ever, in your lives, actually met a Bulgarian strawberry picker.
- More Irish people would do these jobs if Keelings paid more
Probably. But if Keelings paid more, Irish strawberries would cost more. You’d still end up paying the wages of Bulgarian strawberry pickers, because you’d just buy the Bulgarian strawberries and not the Irish ones. For this plan to work, you’ve to shut down the EU’s single market, basically. And that’s fine – it would, actually, work, in that you could have Irish people paying more for, and being paid more to pick, strawberries. But strawberries are one sector of the economy. If Bulgaria can’t export cheap strawberries to Ireland, then Ireland will have a tough time exporting cheap microchips to Germany and France. You gain in strawberries, but you lose in the, well, slightly more lucrative parts of the economy. Like, with all due respect, this is abject nonsense:
The #keelings controversy exposes the scandal of free movement in the EU. For Irish workers , it means unfair competition for jobs and lower wages. Free movement suits business . It keeps wages low and undermines working conditions for our workers.
— Irish Freedom Party (@IrexitFreedom) April 17, 2020
Wages and job numbers and working conditions have all increased, dramatically, with the advent of free trade. That’s not even arguable. Yes, it’s true that Irish people have a harder time getting paid well to pick strawberries, but if that’s the policy goal of nationalism, it’s a complete dud. Because we have a lot easier time getting paid well in the service economy, and our overall level of national wealth has dramatically increased. If nationalists think Ireland was better off in 1976, economically speaking, than it is today, then they’re just flat out wrong.
The only Keelings argument that stands up is the obvious one – that at a time of national crisis when the average Irish person cannot move outside 2km from their homes, it’s patently absurd to move hundreds of people a thousand KM across the continent to pick strawberries. But that argument ignores the fact that the restrictions on us do not extend, even in Ireland, to essential agricultural labour. That exception is there for a reason. In fact, if an Irish person wanted to travel from Cork to Dublin for the purpose of strawberry harvesting, that’s allowed. Keelings advertised the jobs to irish people, and basically nobody applied.
The Taoiseach was doing what we paid him to do when he asked Brussels to allow this to happen. He was acting like a cheap, and fairly hypocritical, politician, when he pretended to know nothing about it, and be horrified.