Backing Down, Cameron Calls for Modest Migration Reforms

The British leader backs away from radical reforms that could have cost him allies in Europe.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron speak ahead of a European Council meeting in Brussels, December 20, 2013
German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron speak ahead of a European Council meeting in Brussels, December 20, 2013 (European Council)

British prime minister David Cameron’s latest proposals to curb European labor migration are notable not so much because of what they entail but because of what he left out.

In a speech on Friday, Cameron, who leads Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, said migrants from other European Union countries should have to wait four years before they can claim welfare benefits or tax credits. That is far longer than the three-month waiting period his coalition government with the Liberal Democrats is enacting.

Cameron also said migrants should leave the United Kingdom if they haven’t found work after six months. Most, in fact, already do.

Finally, Cameron wants to bar citizens from new countries that join the European Union until their economies have “converged more closely” with existing members. That, too, is already close to reality. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania have yet to join the Schengen Area customs union.

The proposals are far less radical than many expected. In the days before Cameron delivered his speech, Conservative Party and Downing Street sources had floated suggestions in the media that the prime minister would call for an “emergency brake” on immigration or restrict the number of European labor migrants that would be let into the United Kingdom.

Polls show immigration is a top concern for voters six month away from a general election and Cameron was under pressure to take a harder line on the issue. Many Conservatives fear that the rise in popularity of the United Kingdom Independence Party could cost them their reelection next year.

However, as The Economist newspaper argued last month, “UKIP will always be able to outgun its rivals on promises to keep out foreigners.” It wants Britain to leave the European Union altogether while Cameron has conditioned membership on improved terms.

Voters’ concerns about immigrations are also likely to be a proxy for wider, especially economic, disgruntlements, according to The Economist — “as differences in attitudes between different bits of the country suggest.”

London, the city most changed by immigration, is generally relaxed about it, while several of the areas most determined to keep out immigrants, such as northeast England, have hardly seen any.

It is no coincidence that the areas that have seen the highest influx of labor migrants are prospering. The 228,000 European citizens who have moved to Britain this year alone have helped make it the fastest-growing economy in the industrialized world.

A study by two University College London economists published this month showed European migrants had made a net contribution of £20 billion to Britain’s public finances between 2000 and 2011.

The majority come from depressed Western European economies like France, Italy and Spain. They include entrepreneurs and skilled workers who seek to escape limited job opportunities and high taxes at home.

Any attempt to structurally limit immigration from other European Union countries would probably have left Cameron isolated in Europe.

The Dutch share many of the British prime minister’s priorities for reform, from strengthening the single market to returning powers to member states. But as the Atlantic Sentinel reported earlier this month, when push comes to shove, the Netherlands will always back Germany — its most important trading partner and Europe’s largest economy — over the United Kingdom.

And for German chancellor Angela Merkel, restricting the free movement of people within Europe would be a bridge too far. Der Spiegel reported that the German government believes a “point of no return” could be reached in Anglo-German relations and that a British withdrawal from the European Union would no longer be unthinkable if Cameron made such proposals.

So in the end, he didn’t.