Immigration from Romania and Bulgaria Set to Give Nigel Farage and Ukip a Boost
Iain Martin is a political commentator, and a former editor of The Scotsman and former deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph. The following opinion piece was published originally in The Telegraph.
Why is immigration so troublesome for David Cameron?
The Prime Minister stood for office at the election pledging to bring annual immigration down to the tens of thousands, following a decade under New Labour of explosive growth in the numbers. Mr Cameron is struggling to hit his target, despite considerable efforts by ministers and Border Agency staff. Last month, official figures showed that net migration — the difference between the number arriving to live in Britain and those emigrating — rose to 182,000 in the year to June, up 15,000 on the previous 12 months. In addition, from this week, the curbs on immigration from Bulgaria and Romania will end. Voters are unimpressed. The latest ICM poll findings for The Sunday Telegraph are unequivocal, with 72 per cent opposing the latest relaxation of border controls, which were agreed when the two Eastern European countries were allowed to join the EU. Even when voters are told that resisting would put the UK Government in breach of EU law, they still want David Cameron to take action.
Is there anything the PM can do?
There was a moment several months ago when Mr Cameron might have been able to take a stand. On the back of public concern, some Tory MPs suggested the Prime Minister should declare that Britain will retain controls on movement from Bulgaria and Romania. He might have forced the issue at an EU summit and sought support from other countries, such as Germany, where concerns have also been expressed about the impact of a new wave of immigration. But the Government’s view was that it was not feasible and that a change of policy would have left the UK isolated.
Will the controversy boost Ukip?
Almost certainly, yes. Nigel Farage’s party is declaring that it expects to top the poll in May’s European elections, and a row over yet more immigration is the perfect way for Ukip to start the new year. It enables Mr Farage to claim that once again the mainstream parties at Westminster are out of touch with the voters’ concerns, and that Mr Cameron in particular is too timid when it comes to taking on the European Union. Simultaneously, the Conservative leader is also facing calls from Tory modernisers to tone down his rhetoric on the subject. A think tank on the liberal wing of the party will publish an alternative manifesto, and last week it said that the Conservative leadership should stop trying to match Ukip on immigration. Mr Cameron might be forgiven for thinking that he cannot win on this subject.
Will there actually be an influx?
Just as before previous waves of immigration, estimates vary on how many Romanians and Bulgarians will come to Britain. It may be as many as 250,000 over five years, according to the pressure group MigrationWatch UK, which argues for tighter controls. Warnings on the scale of potential immigration from countries such as Poland were vindicated previously when controls were lifted. This time, although this is not the only country that new migrants will consider, the UK does have a fast-growing economy and employment market compared with destinations such as France. Mr Cameron’s best hope is probably that the numbers turn out lower than anticipated and that public interest fades.
How do the Romanians and Bulgarians view the situation?
The claims about the threat to Britain made by Mr Farage have attracted considerable publicity in both countries, and newspapers and broadcasters there have reported British concerns. Some of the responses have been laced with humour. According to the BBC, a Bulgarian Facebook user announced that 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians were invited to Britain to spend New Year’s Eve with Nigel Farage. But there is also genuine anger. The leaders of both countries can say, legitimately, that successive UK governments were the leading advocates of expanding EU membership, as they hoped that it would impede the ever closer European integration advocated by Europhiles. British politicians knew at the time that this would mean free movement of populations across borders, even if they didn’t explain this properly to voters. Now it is too late, and the British people are understandably unhappy.
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