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Cameron Pushes Restrictions on EU Migrants
From the Wall Street Journal of Fri, 28 Nov 2014 18:26:42 EST
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has outlined how he plans to slow immigration to the United Kingdom. Mark Kelly reports. Image: Getty

LONDON—British Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled proposals designed to curb the flow of people coming to the U.K. from other European Union countries, in a high stakes move that could result in Britain moving closer to an exit from the European Union.

He announced the measures in a speech Friday that marks a significant escalation in his rhetoric on immigration, which is shaping up to be a key issue in the U.K. general election in May.

The increasingly vocal debate in the U.K. echoes that in other countries across the continent as the economic downturn sparked by the recent financial crisis has thrust the issue to the forefront of the political agenda and given rise to anti-EU parties.

In the speech, Mr. Cameron said migrants coming from the EU should have to wait at least four years before receiving benefits such as tax credits or access to state-subsidized housing. EU migrants also would no longer be eligible to receive state child welfare payments unless their children have moved with them to Britain, to stop the practice of using the handouts to support family in their home country.

In a veiled threat to the rest of Europe, the prime minister also said the proposals will be “an absolute requirement” in a renegotiation he has pledged to hold with the EU if he wins a second term. If he succeeds, he said he would campaign to keep Britain in the bloc in a national referendum on EU membership to be held by the end of 2017—but if he fails to secure those changes, “I rule absolutely nothing out,” he said.

The tougher stance appears to be aimed at placating those in his center-right Conservative Party who argue the increase in immigrants is straining public services, such as schools and housing. Adding to the pressure on Mr. Cameron is the small but growing growing rivalU.K. Independence Party that is winning over some traditional Conservative voters with its tough-on-immigration message.

Immigration benefits Britain, but it needs to be controlled.

—British Prime Minister David Cameron

But the proposals were immediately met with some resistance from some quarters of Europe and British business.

Mr. Cameron must tread a careful path. While he has found some sympathy for his position within the EU, where many countries would prefer the U.K. to remain in the 28-member bloc, several European leaders have warned him that free movement of people in the EU is sacrosanct.

It is a very dangerous tightrope to be walking.

—Joh. Berenberg Gossler economist Rob Wood

The proposals could nudge Britain closer to an exit from the EU because achieving his goals may require changes to EU treaties or new EU-wide laws, which other member states may resist, said Rob Wood, chief UK economist at German bank Joh. Berenberg, Gossler & Co. KG. “It is a very dangerous tightrope to be walking,” because the economic fall-out of Britain’s exit would be large, he said.

The speech sparked criticism from some in Europe, including in France where a senior French government official called the proposals “unacceptable” and a “big step backwards for Europe.”

In Poland, which has seen a large number of its citizens move to Britain, the deputy foreign minister in charge of EU affairs warned his government wouldn’t agree to measures it deemed discriminatory and that the free-movement-of-people principle was one of the biggest benefits of membership.

A spokeswoman for Angela Merkel said the chancellor believes the free movement of people is “so fundamental to the idea of the EU that it is untouchable.” But Ms. Merkel has also stressed that abuse of free movement was not acceptable and that “effective mechanisms and instruments should be found to prevent such abuse,” spokeswoman Christine Wirtz said.

Mr. Cameron sought to reassure EU counterparts that he didn’t want to “destroy” the freedom-of-movement principle but added that it has “never been an unqualified right.” He added that with migration being an issue causing concern across Europe, reform was in the interest of all member states.

He acknowledged some of his proposals would require treaty change, which requires unanimous support from the 28-member bloc. Either way, he could face challenge in the EU courts, which have ruled on various efforts to restrict welfare to foreigners.

Some in industry warned about the potential damage that curbs could pose to Britain’s economy. “Immigration has helped keep the wheels of [Britain’s] recovery turning by plugging skills shortages and allowing U.K. firms to grow,” said Katja Hall, deputy general director at the Confederation of British Industry, a business lobby group.

Immigration has helped keep the wheels of [Britain’s] recovery turning by plugging skills shortages and allowing U.K. firms to grow.

—CBI Deputy General Director Katja Hall

Mr. Cameron hopes to quell the domestic debate about immigration and the closely-linked issue of Europe, which has previously consumed the party with infighting and played a role in the downfall of the previous two Conservative prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. With the general election looming into view, he hopes to shift the focus to Britain’s relatively well-performing economy to rally voters.

But previous experience has shown that attempts by Mr. Cameron to appease the rebellious euroskeptic wing of his party have often led to calls for even greater concessions.

Some members of Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party said Friday the measures were a step in the right direction but they would like to see even tougher immigration measures, and that this represented only one of many areas that the prime minister needs to renegotiate if they are to be convinced to stay in the EU.

The plans stop short of tougher measures some in his party have advocated, such as a cap or quota on the numbers of people who can come to the UK from the EU—a measure that would likely find little support among other European leaders.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves Downing Street in London on Wednesday.
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves Downing Street in London on Wednesday. Associated Press

The efforts also likely won’t go far enough to satisfy those that argue the only way to control immigration within the EU is for Britain to leave it—a key plank of UKIP’s message.

The U.K. has seen a sharp increase in immigrants since the mid-1990s, primarily Eastern Europeans from an expanding EU and other foreigners seeking employment during boom times. That sharp increase paired with the downturn of the economy following the 2008 financial crisis pushed the issue to the forefront of the political agenda.

Mr. Cameron came to power in 2010 promising to slash net migration—the number of people coming to the U.K. minus those leaving—back to the levels of the 1990s. But he has failed to do so.

Official statistics released Thursday showed an estimated 260,000 more people came to Britain than left in the 12 months to June 2014, a 43% increase from the year-earlier period. More than half of the increase in people coming to the U.K. was accounted for by the immigration of EU citizens.

“Immigration benefits Britain, but it needs to be controlled,” he added.

—Laurence Norman, Martin Sobczyk, Noemie Bisserbe and Jason Douglas contributed to this article.

Write to Nicholas Winning at

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