Cameron plan on immigration curbs a challenge to EU

EU migrants will face tougher restrictions in the UK under new plan

Under the British prime minister’s immigration plans, migrants would be barred from getting council houses for four years, and would be ordered to quit the UK after six months if they have not found work. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Reuters

Under the British prime minister’s immigration plans, migrants would be barred from getting council houses for four years, and would be ordered to quit the UK after six months if they have not found work. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Reuters

 

British prime minister David Cameron is to impose major curbs on the rights of citizens from other European Union states to claim welfare benefits – but most changes will require other EU states’ agreement.

Delivering his long-awaited speech on immigration, Mr Cameron sought to heed the clamour in Britain to curb the numbers coming in – 280,000 this year, the highest for decades. Equally, however, the he emphasised the contribution made by existing immigrants and their value to society and the economy, and said the UK’s strength is its open economy.

Under his plan, EU migrants would not qualify for welfare benefits given to low-pay workers – worth up to £700 a month for two-child families – twice the sum paid in Germany and three times the French level.

Benefits claims

Equally, they would be barred from getting council houses for four years. They would be ordered to quit the UK after six months if they have not found work, while fraudsters and beggars would face longer bars from coming back.

Changes can be made to British welfare rules, Mr Cameron believes, without running foul of EU discrimination rules because the UK is planning to change its entire system.

Under the plans, which have faced mounting IT and other difficulties, the unwieldy list of existing benefits will be replaced by one universal credit, so new qualifying rules can be set from the off without breaching rules.

He accepted much of his plan – which did not include a much-touted but impracticable EU immigrant quota – will require agreement by other EU leaders. His argument, he said, is reasonable: the UK is facing unsustainable immigration pressures. He added that other EU leaders should ask themselves “why not?”

His positive noises about immigration infuriated some Conservative hardliners concerned about the UK Independence Party, but Mr Cameron judges that, while he must respond to Ukip, he cannot sound too much like the insurgent party.

In his speech, he did not mention Ukip, but he urged middle-ground British opinion to reject “dangerous and misguided views” from those selling “the snake oil of simple solutions”.

In 2010, Mr Cameron vowed immigration would fall to 100,000 net by next year. Instead, it is at record levels, spurred by immigrants fleeing euro zone economies, but, also, by near-record numbers from non-EU states.

Refusing to say if he would recommend an EU exit to UK voters, he did, however, say: “If our concerns fall on deaf ears and we cannot put our relationship with the EU on a better footing, then of course I rule nothing out.

“But I am confident that, with goodwill and understanding, we can and will succeed,” he said, clearly convinced other EU states accept a UK exit cannot be ruled out and, therefore, his hand is stronger.

Treaty changes

“Frankly I will not understand if a sensible way through cannot be found, which will help settle this country’s place in the EU once and for all,” he said, in a speech in Nottingham.

Opinion about immigration in Britain has become dramatically more negative, partly because it has become acceptable to declare that immigrants make it harder for low-paid British workers to make ends meet.

It has started to be reflected in communities where few immigrants actually live or work, and even in places where it is clear immigrants are doing work locals do not want to do – such as fruit-picking.

Mr Cameron made efforts beforehand to ensure eastern European leaders were not surprised by his speech, briefing Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz and others last night

So far, Warsaw regards Mr Cameron’s intervention as moderate, though Czech minister Tomas Prouza pointedly tweeted a photograph of Czech Battle of Britain RAF pilots, saying they did not work in Britain for four years.