A little while ago on this blog we drew attention to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to reduce net migration to Great Britain to below 100,000 a year by the 2015 general election. This came on the back of concern among sectors of the British public that there were too many migrants to an already overcrowded island. Considering that the British Government’s hands are tied to a large extent by the EU’s commitment to the freedom of movement of workers throughout Europe, this always seemed to be an ambitious target. Now with the rise of Ukip as a national electoral force to be reckoned with (it won its second seat to the House of Commons last week through a by election) immigration is becoming more and more an election issue. UKIP presents itself as a party outside of what it portrays as the three party (Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats) consensus in the UK on the EU and immigration. There is no disputing that this stance has furnished Ukip with wide support. Thus, it is embarrassing, not to say dangerous, for David Cameron’s government to start to make noises that it will not be meeting this self-imposed immigration target.
But, according to the Guardian, that is exactly what Theresa May the Home Secretary intimated to a BBC programme recently. The embarrassment this will cause the government is heightened by the fact that the Prime Minister was so unequivocal in making his pronouncement in April 2011. David Cameron said at that time:
“I believe that will mean net migration to this country will be in the order of tens of thousands each year, not the hundreds of thousands every year that we have seen over the last decade. Britain will always be open to the best and brightest from around the world and those fleeing persecution. But with us, our borders will be under control and immigration will be at levels our country can manage. No ifs. No buts. That’s a promise we made to the British people, and it’s a promise we are keeping.”
This sounds nice and firm, but leaves little wriggle room when you have to start reaching for ifs and buts. And that is exactly what the Home Secretary was reaching for when she said:
“It is of course unlikely that we are going to reach the tens of thousands by the end of the parliament. Why is that? It is because we have seen increasing numbers of people coming from across Europe, partly because our economy is doing better than other economies across Europe. We have been doing what we can in relation to EU migration, but there is more to be done.”
To soften the blow, the Prime Minister is expected to make a speech on EU migration in which he will announce changes to various work credits for EU migrants to make moving and working in the UK less enticing. But when the UK economy is doing better than much of the rest of Europe, this might not be enough to curb immigrant numbers significantly. Therefore, if re-elected, the Government has promised to place “on the table” changes to the rules on the free movement of people in EU renegotiations. This will be the Tories’ “definitive response” to “the Ukip threat” according to the Guardian. To what extent the rest of the EU members (particularly France and Germany) will be open to such a change to one of the foundations of the EU is open to question. I suppose that the Government is only promises to renegotiate, it is not promising to succeed in any negotiations. Apparently however, British officials believe that Germany at least is open to changes to underpin the new Eurozone governance arrangements. May said that:
“It is only the Conservative party that is guaranteeing people that if in government after the May 2015 election then we will renegotiate our relationship with the EU. Free movement will be one of those issues that we will be dealing with. I believe we can win that negotiation because I see within Europe there is greater mood now for looking at this issue of free movement and dealing with the problems people are seeing in relation to [it]. That is about cutting out abuse. But it is more than that.”
Ukip’s message will continue to be that there is no way that Britain can control migration levels as long as it is still a member of the EU. We will have to wait until next year to see whether or not this message will resonate with the voters. I am prepared to say that at least now British voters have a choice about their continued presence in the EU and that Ukip has shaken the three older parties out of their unquestioned consensus about the EU and migration. That is surely a good thing – remember Gordon Brown’s smug response to one of his own voters at the last election? You can’t imagine Milliband, Cameron or Clegg dare saying the same thing at the 2015 election, even in private.