Will David Cameron please everyone? The domestic and European politics of immigration

The rising concern of the British population over immigration, which has been vigorously embraced by UKIP, has placed PM Cameron in a delicate situation where he must try to satisfy his voters while avoiding a direct confrontation with EU interests.

What does UKIP want?

Despite UKIP’s popularity boom over the last year, David Cameron and his Conservative party had successfully managed UKIP’s populism. However, after the European Parliament elections in May, where Nigel Farage scored an astonishing victory, Cameron began to undertake a political reorientation to softly match UKIP’s main political priorities, especially on immigration.

The United Kingdom has traditionally been a welcoming country for immigrants. For the last century and, more intensively, after the independence of India and Pakistan, the United Kingdom has received vast numbers of immigrants from every corner of the world. This trend considerably increased with the 2004 EU enlargement, bringing an average of 200,000 immigrants per year from the EU alone. The faster recovery of the British economy over the last year compared to other European countries has boosted this trend even further.

However, the consequences of the financial crisis and the rise of anti-immigration parties around Europe have revealed the concern of many population groups on this issue, and the British people are no exception. Their fears of culture clashes or that low-paid workers will not be able to compete with immigrants’ low salaries, as well as the popular discomfort over the amount of financial aid immigrants receive upon arrival are some examples of the worries that this issue is raising across the nation. Following in the footsteps of most populist right-wing parties, UKIP has embraced this issue as one of its main pillars.

David Cameron has been left, just ahead of the next general election in May 2015, with two radical options: a drastic solution to reduce immigration, which would create a serious confrontation with the EU, or finding the best measure to please Brussels and facing a probable loss at home in May.

A cap on immigration

Cameron: "Let's put a 'cap' on immigration" [Photo: Tjebbe van Tijen, via Flickr]

Cameron: “Let’s put a ‘cap’ on immigration” [Photo: Tjebbe van Tijen, via Flickr]

In October, Cameron chose the first option, announcing a plan to impose an annual quota on immigration from the EU. This cap would imply issuing low-skilled immigrants with national insurance numbers that would expire after a limited time. Hence, this measure, mainly oriented to the prototype of Polish, Romanian or Bulgarian immigrants, would seek to considerably reduce the number of migrants arriving without a job offer.

However, the EU and, more vigorously, Germany, soon criticised the measure, declaring it would violate the principle of free movement of workers, a central pillar of the EU and the single market which is fully anchored in the EU treaties. This principle states that any EU national is free to look for a job in any other EU country without requiring a work permit and with the freedom to remain there after employment has finished. Cameron’s plan clearly violates the very bases of this principle by imposing that quota and denying the entrance of the rest.

The EU positioned itself squarely against the measure, leading Cameron to understand that this solution would actually create a second major problem, that is, the exit of the UK from the EU. EU treaties are legally binding for all signatory states and the UK, as one of them, cannot implement any measure that opposes these treaties. The only solution would be to abandon the EU, but this could not be achieved without a referendum – and even if a referendum were to be organized, it is not clear what the result would be.

How to please everyone but the immigrants

The EU pressure left Cameron with no alternative but to look for a solution midway between both extremes. Indeed, he seems to have finally found the best possible solution, with a new plan which changes the perspective: instead of attacking the immigrant, it attacks the “desires” of the immigrant. That is, it makes the UK much less attractive for them by eliminating, what Cameron calls, the “massive cash incentive”.

This new planannounced at the end of November, aims to limit migrants’ access to certain benefits: it would stop EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits for four years upon arrival, eliminate child benefits for dependents living abroad, and provide for the deportation of migrants who have not found a job after six months.

[Photo: CGP Grey, via Flickr]

[Photo: CGP Grey, via Flickr]

With these measures, Cameron seeks to return annual net migration to 1990s levels, when immigration was in the tens of thousands, appeasing both UKIP and voters who would abandon him if the current situation persists. Cameron seems to have simultaneously calmed Brussels’ worries, and he has sent an important message: he has proven that his government is making the best possible effort to respect EU legislation, but he has also warned Brussels that the time has come to deal with immigration and start considering proper normative reforms if the UK is to remain on board.

Cover photo: If UKIP were pigeons, Clacton-on-Sea #Banksy [Source: Duncan Hill, via Flickr]

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