As 1 January draws ever nearer – and with it the lifting of restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian citizens’ free entry into Britain – the more frenzied and out of proportion the public debate about immigration is becoming.
As the Prime Minister headed to Brussels yesterday for an EU summit, he was hastened on his way by tabloid headlines declaring, “If more come in, then get us out” and polls – conducted for the same newspaper – suggesting not only that more than 70 per cent of voters consider it important for him to limit immigration from Europe, but also that, if he does so, it could prove crucial to the outcome of the promised in/out referendum on Britain’s membership.
Given the ferment on the Tory backbenches, and Ukip’s gains to David Cameron’s Little-England right, it is little wonder that he should feel pressured. In response, he has done much to try to gain the upper hand. Only weeks ago, he outlined plans to minimise the temptations of our welfare and healthcare provisions. But with hysteria about an “influx” showing few signs of abating, the Prime Minister yesterday went further still, rushing measures through Parliament to stop new arrivals claiming out-of-work benefits in their first three months, ahead of the new year deadline, specifically to “make the UK a less attractive place for EU migrants”.
The problem with all of this is not only the troublingly xenophobic tone increasingly – and ever more unthinkingly – dominating the public discourse. It is also that the suggestion Britain is in danger of being swamped by immigrants, particularly benefits-scrounging immigrants, is simply not true.
First, for every survey predicting a flood of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants in January, another anticipates but a trickle. More importantly, though, the vast majority of migrants come here to work, and do just that. Shorn of the rhetoric, there is nothing wrong with Mr Cameron’s latest restrictions. But they are not needed in order to stem a tide from the former Eastern Bloc, nor will there be much noticeable impact in the immediate term.
Neither, sad to say, will the issue be laid to rest with Bulgaria and Romania – as The Sun’s rabble-rousing invocation of the referendum makes clear. Indeed, Mr Cameron has already hinted that the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 election could include measures to curb the free movement of workers within the EU. And only this week the Home Secretary was forced to distance herself from an allegedly leaked government report considering a cap on European migrant numbers after the Deputy Prime Minister dismissed the plan as “undeliverable” and “illegal”.
It is not that there is no issue here. Concerns about cultural integration, access to low-skilled jobs and pressure on public services do merit discussion. But the Prime Minister’s capitulation to ill-informed group-think, giving credence to the notion that immigration is a cost to the country when quite the opposite is true, is no basis from which to begin. Not only is the UK’s appeal to foreign workers a sign of our success; we are also the beneficiaries of the work that they do, the value they generate and the taxes they pay. If there is a wave that risks flooding Britain, it is a wave of fear and foolishness.