U.K.: Immigration Remains a Controversial Issue for Cameron

7 MINS READDec 3, 2013 | 10:20 GMT
U.K.: Immigration Remains a Controversial Issue for Cameron
(Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
Prime Minister David Cameron at The Lord Mayor's Banquet in London.

The British government recently announced plans to make it more difficult for foreigners to access unemployment benefits in the United Kingdom. The announced move reflects anti-immigration and Euroskeptical sentiments that are growing across the European Union.

In the short term, London will probably focus on preventing so-called benefit tourism, since Britain can realistically do little to stop immigration from EU nations. Brussels will probably not object substantially to these specific measures, especially since the Netherlands and Germany have also expressed concern about the issue. In the long run, the United Kingdom will push to modify the European Union's legal framework to apply more efficient limits to the free movement of people within the union.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is once more putting immigration at the core of his political agenda. In an opinion article published by the Financial Times on Nov. 26, Cameron said he is worried about the potentially massive inflow of Romanian and Bulgarian workers in 2014, when restrictions on the arrival of migrants from both countries will be lifted.

In the article, Cameron described a series of measures designed to prevent foreigners from abusing Britain's welfare state — measures to be applied in the coming weeks. Under the new regulations, immigrants from EU nations would not be entitled to unemployment benefits until they have lived in the United Kingdom for three months. Cameron also said that a migrant's unemployment benefits would be discontinued after six months unless the migrant can prove a genuine prospect of employment. Finally, Cameron announced that EU nationals found begging or sleeping rough will be deported and banned from re-entering the country for at least a year.

According to the British leader, these steps are all his government can do within the European Union's current legal framework, which allows European citizens to freely live and work across the union. In the long run, London will push to renegotiate the codified principle of the free movement of workers, arguing that member states should be allowed to cap the flow of immigrants. Britain also wants new member states to be required to reach a certain level of economic development before their workers are allowed to live elsewhere in the union.

Anti-immigration sentiments are on the rise, both in the United Kingdom and throughout the Continent. Domestically, Cameron faces the rising popularity of the U.K. Independence Party, which calls for a British withdrawal from the European Union as well as tougher rules on immigration. He is also dealing with Euroskeptical forces within the ruling Conservative party, which early in 2013 pushed Cameron to announce a referendum on the United Kingdom's EU membership. Meanwhile in continental Europe, the economic crisis is strengthening anti-EU and anti-immigration parties. The recent rise in popularity of France's National Front vividly illustrates the trend.

In this context, Cameron's proposals undermine the process of wider European integration insofar as they seek to weaken one of Europe's founding principles: the free movement of people within the Continent. During the past six decades, EU integration has sometimes slowed — even frozen — but rarely reverted. Several EU members, including Britain, Denmark and Sweden, have often sought to opt out of the integration process, but this is the first time that a member state is actively pushing for its reversal. While London claims that it is only negotiating its own position, Britain's push for a redesign of the EU treaties could open the door for other nations to demand similar concessions. Recently, the Dutch parliament expressed concern about the impact of European integration on national sovereignty.

The Limits to Cameron's Proposals

In the short term, however, there is little Britain can do to prevent immigrants from arriving. During his electoral campaign, Cameron promised to take net immigration in the United Kingdom below 100,000 people per year by 2015. It already appears unlikely that he can keep his promise. According to the United Kingdom's statistical office, net immigration reached 182,000 in the 12 months leading up to June 2013, up from 167,000 over the previous period.

Several factors explain this phenomenon. Roughly half of all immigrants to the United Kingdom come from EU member states, most notably Poland. Under the current legal framework these arrivals are inevitable, with immigration from EU citizens rising to 183,000 people in 2013 from 158,000 in 2012. This forces Cameron's government to focus its anti-immigration lens on non-EU citizens. By limiting access to work and study visas, Westminster has achieved moderate success, reducing the arrival of non-EU citizens — most notably from China and commonwealth nations such as India and Australia — by 14 percent between 2012 and 2013.

Britain's modest economic growth and relatively low unemployment further complicate matters for Cameron because emigration is decreasing. In the statistical year ending in June 2013, 320,000 emigrants left the United Kingdom, a drop from the 349,000 people who emigrated during the previous year. Even if London manages to keep immigration levels under control, there is little it can do to force people to leave the country. As a result, net migration numbers will probably remain considerably above Cameron's goals for the foreseeable future.

Because it cannot prevent EU citizens from migrating to Britain, London is trying to make the United Kingdom less attractive for foreign workers. This explains the prime minister's recent focus on so-called benefit tourism — namely, on the arrival of workers who come from poorer EU countries and hope to benefit from Britain's relatively generous unemployment, health care and welfare benefits. But even these policies face constraints.

First, the United Kingdom already has mechanisms in place to prevent foreigners from abusing the system. Current legislation obliges foreigners to prove that they are actively seeking work with a genuine chance of being hired, or to show they have enough money and will not become a burden on public services. Rather than a lack of restrictions, the challenge for London is more likely a lack of enforcement. Either British authorities do not enforce current norms effectively, or foreign workers are good at cheating the system. Either way, additional measures are unlikely to improve this situation. Moreover, the British Parliament's Home Affairs Committee recently revealed that only 1.5 percent of reports alleging illegal immigration result in a person being deported.

Second, concrete data on immigration is hard to obtain. In July, the parliamentary Public Administration Committee claimed that the country's official migration figures do not accurately assess how many non-U.K. residents were entering and leaving the country. According to the report, immigration statistics, which are generated by surveys, are too uncertain to accurately measure progress against the government's net migration target.

Additionally, it is not clear whether the lifting of restrictions in January 2014 will in fact generate a massive increase in the arrival of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria — people from those countries are already emigrating to the United Kingdom. According to Eurostat, between 8,000 and 12,000 Romanians move to Britain every year. This immigration flow began after the Eastern European country joined the European Union in 2007, with existing restrictions in place. In November, the Bulgarian ambassador to the United Kingdom said that some 8,000 Bulgarians could move to Britain every year beginning in 2014. Anti-immigration think tank MigrationWatch U.K. expects 50,000 people to come from the two countries each year for five years.

So far, the British government has refused to offer its own estimate on how many Romanians and Bulgarians will arrive after restrictions are lifted. Cameron's big fear is to face the same criticism that the Labor party received when it decided not to apply restrictions to Polish workers after Poland joined the European Union in 2004. At the time, the British government said that between 13,000 and 15,000 Poles would arrive every year after Warsaw's EU accession. However, immigration from Poland went from 3,600 in 2003 to 60,200 in 2008.  Since then, the debate on immigration has become so ideological that it is impossible to estimate the real impact of lifting restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians.

Given this background, Britain's recent moves to curb EU immigration are significant mostly at the rhetorical level — they legitimize the anti-immigration and Euroskeptical sentiments that are growing across the European Union. In the short term, London will mostly focus on preventing foreigners from cheating the system, but London cannot stop immigration from EU nations. Even after Cameron's immigration measures are approved, enforcement will remain a problem. At the EU level, even if Brussels expresses concerns about London's rhetoric, EU authorities will probably not object to these specific measures — not with core EU countries such as the Netherlands and Germany also expressing concern about benefit tourism.

In the long run, Britain will try to amend the European Union's legal framework to more effectively curtail the movement of people within the union — specifically those destined for British shores. Since this idea goes against a basic principle of the European Union, requiring the modification of existing treaties as a result, it will represent a fundamental challenge for the survival of the union in its current form.

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