Opinion Columns & Blogs

British proposal to slow immigration might backfire

While a pitched debate is underway in the United States over illegal immigration, an equally fierce fight rages in Britain over the legal variety – immigrant workers from other European countries who, by treaty, enjoy free access to Britain’s labor market. What the two countries share is a tide of populist sentiment that wants to tighten control over workers crossing national borders and gaining access to jobs, schools and hospitals.

Facing an anti-immigration backlash, British Prime Minister David Cameron proposed slashing social welfare benefits for European migrant workers as a means of making the country a less hospitable destination. The move defies European Union laws ensuring equal treatment for workers across the open borders of the bloc’s 28 member countries.

As Cameron knows, immigration into Britain is both a driver and symptom of the United Kingdom’s success. While many euro-zone economies remain sluggish, Britain’s economic growth has accelerated, and unemployment is dropping.

The prime minister strove to strike a balance by declining to meet demands of those in his own Conservative Party and the anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party to limit or freeze immigration from Europe. Those migrants include waves of Eastern European laborers who take low-wage jobs that most British workers don’t want. Net migration into the country is now nearly at a post-recession high – and about 50 percent greater as a proportion of population than it is in the United States.

However, Mr. Cameron’s proposal would hurt thousands of migrant workers – and it’s not clear that it would drive down immigration significantly. The prime minister says those steps would eliminate what he called a “massive cash incentive” attracting migrants to the U.K.

However, immigrants come to Britain mainly for work, not handouts. The welfare state benefits that Cameron wants to slash are sweeteners but not the main magnet for many or most migrants who can’t find jobs in their native countries.

In trying to accommodate nativist sentiment, Cameron is risking the economic dynamism his government can now claim to have fostered. As he acknowledged, Britain has benefited immeasurably from access to the E.U.’s unified market, a condition of which is honoring the free movement of workers.