David Cameron is terrified of UKIP. He’s afraid he’s going to lose the Rochester & Strood by-election. And he knows that the biggest single issue he faces is public concern over mass immigration. So he’s making more and more proposals aimed at reassuring the public and winning back support. What he hasn’t promised, and can’t promise, is a clear numerical cap on “EU citizens” entering the UK – and still less can he promise that EU citizens will be treated in exactly the same way as applicants from elsewhere.
It can’t be stated too often that the current UK immigration system is profoundly discriminatory. It discriminates against the brightest and best – brain surgeons from Canada, nuclear physicists from Australia, engineers from India – and in favour of poor and unskilled immigrants from central and eastern Europe, many of whom are arguably coming for welfare payments and/or higher health-care standards than they could expect at home. This is not only unjust – it’s economically damaging, as we welcome the poor and dependent, but exclude the skilled and the capable.
Critics of UKIP will point out that there are European brain surgeons and nuclear physicists and engineers. Indeed there are. But they should be considered fairly and equally with applicants from the Commonwealth and elsewhere, and subject to the same criteria.
So if Cameron can’t cap the numbers, what’s his Plan B? He’s talked about temporary derogations on immigrants from new member-states – but that’s even further off into the future than his 2017 referendum promise. He wants to limit welfare benefits for immigrants – but that’s merely fiddling at the margin. He’s talked about restricting the issue of National Insurance numbers for immigrants. But to the extent that this might work, it would be in breach of the EU’s free movement rules, and illegal under the treaties. And even if could do these things, he still wouldn’t be equalising treatment of EU and other immigrants.
He’s in a hole, but he keeps digging. To counter the UKIP threat, he’s making more and more commitments on which he will be unable to deliver.
Speaking in London yesterday, out-going Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was unequivocal. “Free Movement” is a foundation-stone of the EU project. It’s not up for renegotiation. Cameron is making a big mistake (for once I agree with Barroso, though for a different reason). He risks alienating other member-states, especially in Eastern Europe.
There are those who hope that the new Commission President Jean Claude Juncker will be more amenable – though after Cameron’s aggressive but doomed attempts to block Juncker’s appointment, that seems unlikely. Of course Juncker says that he will seek to solve “the British problem”. In his new rôle he has to say that. But as a dyed-in-the-wool federalist, he will no more abandon free movement than will Barroso. Any change in the free movement principle would require Treaty change, and the agreement of all 28 member-states.
Barroso also said that the UK would suffer outside the EU. Leaving would be an historic mistake. “Even the proudest nation can’t shape globalisation by itself”, he said. He’s right. But neither can the EU “shape globalisation”. However as an independent nation, Britain is better able to respond to the challenges of globalisation than it would be in the ossified European Union. I liken it to a ship in mid-Atlantic. No, the Captain can’t alter the weather. But if he’s properly in control of his vessel, he can cope with it. Subject him to one-size-fits-all responses from a remote bureaucracy, and he’ll soon be in difficulties.
Just as Cameron is in difficulties. He’s making promises on which he must know that he cannot deliver. He’s in a hole, but he just keeps on digging.