German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s sharp warning to British Prime Minister David Cameron should come as no surprise, least of all to the prime minister himself. “Keep your hands off!” has been the response every time Britain suggests any changes to the European Union’s freedom of movement principles. Now Mr. Cameron has broached the subject of capping the number of unskilled immigrants allowed into Great Britain each year. He also suggested immigrants must demonstrate they can support themselves within three months of arrival – or face deportation.
It doesn’t take a political soothsayer to realize the level of controversy and chaos that would be unleashed if this cornerstone of the E.U. were compromised. Of course, other building blocks of the common market such as service have been implemented to date incompletely or with exemptions, thanks in part to special directives coming from Germany. But freedom of movement is very different to the right of hairdressers to set up shop. It’s a principle that truly holds Europe together.
Other countries such as France might turn around and demand their own rules for immigration. If migration rights were dependent on countries’ per capita gross domestic product, East Europeans could feel singled out. Young Spaniards and Italians looking for work in the north would be robbed of their last hope. Europe would betray the interests of its citizens once again.
While debating the principle of freedom of movement is important, it is essential to understand the reality of its implementation. The reality for Great Britain is that since opening the nation to almost one million Poles in 2004, the number of immigrants entering the country has continued unchecked. They are drawn to the tolerant, strongly integrated society with its universal language of English. And, for example, half of all the asylum seekers from Somalia who were naturalized in the Netherlands have since moved to Great Britain.
Germany’s population is shrinking while Britain’s is growing at a rate of almost half a million people each year.
Germany asks, “What’s the problem? We also deal with the influx of E.U. migrants and do it successfully.” But Germany’s population is shrinking while Britain’s is growing at a rate of almost half a million people each year, not least because of the long-running high immigration rate. This reality makes it increasingly difficult to defend the status quo, even by business lobbies that see immigration as an opportunity to boost the economy and GDP and keep the supply of labor high.
The principle of freedom of movement is a good one. The question is how long can it be democratically implemented. Mr. Cameron would be making a huge mistake if he were to push the issue in hopes of beating the euroskeptic, right-wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) with its own anti-immigration arguments. But the subject is not a burning issue with the British just because populists are fanning it. As long as they are in the E.U., there’s no way to avoid a hunt for solutions and compromises, regardless of who the next prime minister will be.
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