The Government’s plans to flout the principle of free movement of labour and restrict immigrants from poorer EU states relocating to the richer ones, as well as blocking them from claiming benefits for the first three months of their stay in Britain, has sparked a curious row.
EU Commissioners have dubbed Britain the ‘nasty country’ whilst reaction at home asks ‘why so little - so late’. As from 1st January Romanians and Bulgarians will be free to enter Britain legally and the Opposition is asking why action was not taken sooner? Public opinion is against more immigration.
A poll in 2011 revealed that 23% saw immigration as the biggest issue facing Britain. 59% thought there were too many people born elsewhere now living here, 47% thought legal immigrants are a burden on the social services, and 70% said the Government is not doing enough to manage immigration. Labour politicians now admit they allowed too many immigrants to come here when they were in office. Growing support for UKIP, who advocate leaving the EU to stem the tide of immigrants, suggests that public opinion on this issue has not softened since the 2011 poll. It was also significant that when the Prime Minister announced the new measures the other parties did not oppose them and Labour pressed for more. The EU response was predictably hostile because free movement of labour, capital, goods and services are essential features of a single market. As Viviane Reding, the Vice President of the European Commission said “Free movement is non-negotiable.
If Britain wants to leave the single market, you should say so. But if Britain wants to stay a part of the single market, free movement applies. You cannot have your cake and eat it, Mr Cameron.” Whilst that is logical, politics is not always that straight forward. Germany and France have already backed Mr Cameron’s plans and Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands already restrict benefit rights to immigrants with similar rules. There are rational grounds for unease about high levels of immigration. Britain already has a higher population density than most developed nations and significant numbers of immigrants put pressure on the social services. Britain has a housing shortage and immigrants add to the pressures on class sizes in urban schools and hospital Accident and Emergency clinics.
At the same time 77% in the 2011 poll acknowledged that immigrants are usually hard workers and 43% said most had integrated well. Christians will also note the biblical teaching “to have an open attitude towards gerim (sojourners) who were prepared to assimilate into the culture”.[i] This reflects the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments. It is possible to see the Government’s action as a panic measure but an alternative interpretation is that it is politically expedient for the Government to be seen to be standing up to the EU in the run up to the 2015 election.
[i] Nick Spencer: “Asylum and Immigration”, Paternoster for the Jubilee Centre, 2004, pages 85 -103