The relatively minor aspect of EU immigration restriction is welfare entitlement, and the definitely major one is number control. And although the second impacts on the first, they are not to be confused. As Mark Wallace pointed out yesterday on this site, free movement within the EU is incompatible with restricting numbers. Once upon a time, when the EU was the six-member European Economic Community, this simply wasn’t a problem. Now, in the 28-member EU, it is such a one as to have shipwrecked David Cameron’s commitment to reduce net migration.
Alarmed by the rise of UKIP and pressured by his own backbenchers, the Prime Minister has thrashed about since the summer, straining to square stopping free movement into Britain with the terms of our membership: there was talk of an emergency brake. All would be rolled into a major speech. It comes this morning, and the fact that it has been rushed out on a Friday without much advance trailing itself speaks eloquently.
Cameron has been forced to give up his quest. There are no legal means of squaring our EU membership with re-establishing border control, and any plan to do so is thus absent from the speech. At the heart of it is not so much the details about welfare as his hope that the Conservatives can now move on – that he can now shift the political conversation back to the economy. But if proposals to re-establish border control were never practicable, why did Downing Street encourage speculation to rage in the first place? Why did the Prime Minister tell the Conservative conference that he would “get what Britain needs” on free movement?
Nigel Farage is now in a position to denounce the speech as a damp squib. This is a pity, since Cameron’s plans on welfare entitlement are far from nugatory. Indeed, they echo our own proposals in the ConservativeHome manifesto. We called for new immigrants to purchase health and welfare cover through a system of social insurance, and that “full access to public services, benefits and tax credits [should] be earned – with access dependent on reaching a threshold level of tax contributions”.
The Prime Minister wants foreigners to “wait four years before receiving welfare or council houses”…”to ban foreign jobseekers claiming benefits and deport them from the UK if they do not find work within six months”… to ban foreigners “from sending millions of pounds worth of child benefit payments and tax credits abroad if they do not bring their children with them to the UK”. Make no mistake: if implemented, such changes would undoubtedly reduce the pull factor that attracts EU migrants to Britain. He also wants freedom of movement restrictions on future member states.
When it comes to welfare entitlement, Cameron is rising to the challenge. Angela Merkel has already indicated that she is up for some reform of EU-wide welfare entitlement. The Prime Minister thus knows he is pushing at an open door (if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be floating these plans). But just how ajar is it? He cannot be certain that he will get anything like the restrictions he wants in a negotiation – let alone if he insists that such changes should apply to Britain only if others don’t want them.
Much will be made of Cameron’s apparent preparedness to lead the UK out of the EU if his programme is rejected. Does this concession represent the triumph of his Party over his own instincts? Has he had a real change of heart? Or would he come back from negotiations, having got some of what he today sets out, declaring that half a loaf is better than none? Perhaps Macbeth’s words offer the best clue: “We’ld jump the life to come”. In essence, the Prime Minister wants to get the speech done and dusted and his campaign back on track. Tomorrow is another day.
One thing is certain. The speech will not stop UKIP in its tracks. Cameron’s desire to change the subject is thus absolutely right, from the point of view of his own election chances. What about from the county’s? As our manifesto makes clear, Britain needs its border control back. But as Owen Paterson keeps reminding his audiences, that in itself is no guarantee of less immigration.
The former Environment Secretary pointed out in his recent speech (and at a ConservativeHome Party Conference fringe meeting) that migration into Australia – of points system fame – is actually higher than migration into Britain. Were Britain to re-establish border control, we would have to decide as a people just how much immigration we want – how much the economy needs, what migrants are required, how much pressure public services can take, what pace of change is desired. That prospect is distant. In the meanwhile, the Prime Minister struggles in an immigration trap of his own devising.