Shock as PM calls EU immigration ‘reasonable’
Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to the UK since the borders opened up on 1st January has been nowhere near as high as some feared. But does public opinion respond to facts or emotions?
‘Reasonable’ is not a word often associated with the immigration debate. Yet the prime minister on Monday described the number of immigrants arriving in the UK from Bulgaria and Romania since restrictions were lifted at the start of 2014 as being ‘at a reasonable level’.
With many Britons believing the country is already packed to capacity, some of those listening to David Cameron’s interviews this week will see his intervention as, well, totally unreasonable.
The public will not have a chance to object to the PM’s stance until May, when voters are expected to flock to the anti-EU UK Independence Party in elections to the European Parliament. This makes EU immigration a major electoral problem for the prime minister. But unfortunately for Cameron, his own Conservative MPs pose a more immediate danger – they are threatening to rebel against him on the issue of EU immigration in a vote this Thursday.
So far, the facts are on David Cameron’s side. As January draws to a close, the Romanian ambassador says the number of new arrivals from his country is still fewer than 25. This is dramatically lower than the 50,000 per year that anti-immigration campaigners warned would arrive every year from Romania and Bulgaria once their citizens gained the same rights to freedom of movement across the EU as those enjoyed by people in all the other member states.
When the much-dreaded day of the lifting of work restrictions came on 1st January, many expected the worst. The media gathered at airports expecting aeroplanes overflowing with migrants who intended to settle. Instead they found a few bemused Romanians who expected to return home after earning some money in the UK. It was a bizarre introduction to Britain.
But suspicion runs deep because estimates about the number of migrants from previous eastern European nations joining the EU have been so wrong. So the prime minister was careful to say that he shared the ‘frustration’ of those who object to free movement rights for all EU citizens, and that overall immigration is ‘too high’.
Immigration or imagination?
Even with those caveats, Cameron’s words were seen by commentators as politically brave: quoting inconvenient facts will anger those in his party who want to force him to reintroduce work restrictions for some EU citizens. The rebellious Eurosceptic MPs argue that even if many immigrants have not come to the UK yet, the government needs to be seen to do more.
Others lament that public opinion seems to be so driven by emotions, with the facts seemingly of so little consequence to either the voters or the nation’s political leaders. Unless we use our heads as well as our hearts, they warn, we will easily let our fears get the better of us.
- Discuss the reasons that some might have for leaving their home country.
- David Cameron’s claim that immigration was ‘reasonable’ struck a new tone. Is it good for a leader to admit to a change of view when the facts change, or a weakness?
- Can you think of any examples where statistics really do not change the way we think about a subject? For example, being afraid of sharks despite shark attacks being so rare?
- Imagine you are an EU immigrant and write a diary of how you might have felt when you arrived in the UK.
Some People Say...
“People fear what they don’t understand.’Andrew Smith”
What do you think?
Q & A
- If Bulgarians and Romanians can come here, can I go there?
- You can. The European Union allows for the free movement of people between states, meaning that a person could move from France to Germany, from Denmark to Spain, from the UK to Greece. The government can set its own rules on immigration from outside the EU, but EU treaties mean it has little control over how to restrict work or other rights of those coming from within the Union.
- So are the main parties still worried?
- UKIP campaigns against immigration, arguing that the UK should leave the EU rather than accept the free movement rules. Many Conservatives also believe that the EU rules are too restrictive on member states, on this and other issues. It is the dramatic rise in popularity of UKIP which has spurred them on to confront the prime minister on EU immigration.
- The question of whether people moving to live in a country is a good thing generally, and whether too many immigrants are arriving, has become one of the dominant issues in UK politics. The UK has a population of 63 million, with 182,000 more people moving to the UK than leaving in the year ending in June 2013, according to the latest Office for National Statistics figures.
- A survey conducted in January 2014 by the National Centre for Social Research for the BBC programme ‘The Truth About Immigration’, found that 70% of Britons believe that immigration is a problem for the UK.
- The main anti-immigration pressure group is called Migration Watch, an independent group which conducts its own research into immigration. Pressure on the government has also come from the dramatic rise of UKIP.
- Eastern European
- In 2004, the UK opened its doors to workers from Poland and nine other new EU nations. The Home Office thought that 13,000 Poles were likely to arrive but by 2013 the true figure was revealed to be 637,000.