Do British voters hate foreigners, or merely freeloaders? That is essentially the question British Prime Minister David Cameron posed in his long-awaited speech on immigration from other European Union countries, delivered last month at the headquarters of the construction-equipment manufacturer JCB.
Cameron’s gamble is that voters do not mind Poles or Lithuanians operating JCB’s machines on construction sites all over the United Kingdom. What they mind is people immigrating to the U.K. to take advantage of its welfare benefits.
The speech was Cameron’s answer to the recent defections of two of his Conservative Party members of Parliament to the anti-EU, anti-immigration UK Independence Party, which he fears could steal Conservative votes in the general election next May. But, as clever as the speech was, it is unlikely to succeed in beating back UKIP — and it leaves the British debate about EU membership focused on the wrong issue.
To be sure, Cameron’s speech was a more statesmanlike gamble than many — even within his own government — had anticipated. Some of his remarks in recent weeks had suggested that he might reject outright the free movement of EU citizens — one of the union’s founding principles — and dare other European governments to oppose him.
Instead, Cameron emphasized the U.K.’s enduring desire to be open to the world while restricting EU migrants’ welfare rights. Specifically, he proposed requiring EU migrants to spend four years working in the U.K. before becoming eligible for the top-up welfare payments that low-paid British workers receive, and to end benefit payments for migrant workers’ children living in their home country. Though such moves could be challenged in the European Court of Justice on grounds of discrimination, any cases are unlikely to arise until well after the upcoming election.
The political danger for the Conservatives is that they are misjudging public sentiment. Perhaps voters have just as much of a problem with foreigners as they do with freeloaders. If that is the case, reducing immigrants’ welfare benefits will be inadequate. This is not to say that Cameron should target foreigners. On the contrary, he must change the conversation to reassure voters that their economic future is bright.
As it stands, the British, like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, feel overtaxed for spotty public services that are constantly being cut, and are angry that their incomes have been falling for the last five years. As a result, many resent welfare recipients and fear competition for jobs — a sentiment that is fueling the rise of populist, anti-EU and anti-immigrant parties across Europe.
The key difference in the U.K. is that UKIP is gaining ground with voters despite rapid economic growth (more than 3 percent annually, the highest rate in the EU). Between now and May, Cameron must persuade voters that the British economy will continue to perform strongly, fueling an increase in real incomes.
A change of subject would also be in the national interest. By banging on about immigration, Cameron risks making it central to the question of whether Britain should remain in the EU. He is, after all, the politician who has promised to hold a referendum in 2017, if he is still prime minister, on whether to stay or leave, following a period variously described as a “renegotiation” of the U.K.’s membership and “reform” of the EU’s structure. He is now making it seem as if immigration will be the key test of that effort.
That is a big problem. For starters, there is little or nothing that other EU governments can concede on the free movement of people, which is enshrined in the founding document of European integration, the 1957 Treaty of Rome.
In any case, Britain receives more migrants from outside the EU than from other EU countries. And migrants from Poland, Italy or France are much more likely than those from Somalia, Syria, or India to return home eventually. If the British public truly opposes immigration, they are probably referring to non-EU immigration, not the arrival of, say, Italian university graduates.
In fact, there is a far more important issue that should serve as the main focus of the British debate on the EU: the U.K.’s future status inside the EU as a non-member of the eurozone. This is what Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne were focusing on until UKIP surged in the opinion polls. It is time to renew that focus.
Cameron’s government must recognize that there is only one good reason to wonder whether the U.K. might be better off leaving the EU: the risk that remaining outside of the eurozone would leave Britain at a serious disadvantage in EU decision-making, even about rules affecting the single market.
It sounds a bit technical, and it is. But sorting out the relationship between EU members within and outside the eurozone can be done in a fairly short time without new treaties; indeed, progress has already been made on this front.
Cameron and Osborne would then be able to boast that they have procured for the British public the best of both worlds: much faster economic growth than the stagnant eurozone members, together with all of the advantages of EU membership, including access to the single market and enhanced global influence. That narrative would be far more powerful than a few tweaks to welfare rights for immigrants.
Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist, is the author of “Good Italy, Bad Italy” and “The Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade.” © Project Syndicate, 2014.