Britain’s coalition brawls on immigration

The disagreement between Britain and the European Union over free movement of people, which we looked at last week, has now become a very public disagreement within Britain’s coalition government.

A week after home secretary Theresa May had told her EU counterparts that free movement needed to be rethought, the Sunday Times published details of a Home Office “review” of open borders, which “raised the prospect of a 75,000 cap on annual EU immigration” and offered various proposals to discourage people from coming to Britain.

The Guardian reports that “May’s office is understood to have leaked the findings … to the newspaper,” and in the context of British Conservative politics that’s completely plausible. One of David Cameron’s strongest political imperatives is to keep reassuring his backbench that he is willing to stand up to the Europeans, and this would be a simple gesture in that direction.

May did not confirm the leak, but continued her attack on the idea of free immigration. She claimed to have been discussing the issue with other EU ministers “for some time now”, but there’s no doubt that Britain remains way out of the mainstream of European opinion.

For the europhobic Tory backbench, of course, that’s a feature rather than a bug. With the intensely anti-immigrant UK Independence Party breathing down their collective necks, most of the Conservatives want to take things much further than Cameron is ever likely to. Former shadow home secretary David Davis – who was once Cameron’s main rival for the leadership – is only the latest to argue against allowing free access for Romanians and Bulgarians, as is required from 1 January.

But the Tories are not governing alone, and deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has some rather different ideas about free movement of people:

My advice to the Home Office is to spend less time leaking policies that are illegal and undeliverable and spend more time delivering on the policies that we have agreed as a coalition government …

Beyond that I would just state the obvious. If we pulled up the drawbridge now and said to German lawyers or Finnish engineers or Dutch accountants they can’t come to work it would be a disaster for our economy. We are an open economy. The City of London would grind to a halt overnight. It would be very unwelcome to the two million Brits who work abroad, who I don’t think would thank the Conservative Party for entering into a sort of tit-for-tat race to the bottom …

This is the most basic common sense. European integration is not a utopian proposal, it’s an established fact. Eurosceptic fantasies notwithstanding, Britain cannot just decouple itself from Europe without enormous social and economic cost.

Ironically enough, it was UKIP leader Nigel Farage (as quoted by the BBC) who highlighted the most important point: “The government simply cannot impose a cap on migration from the EU under EU rules. That is a fact. The only way to achieve this would be to leave the European Union.”

That’s certainly not where the prime minister wants to go. But it’s no longer possible to hide the fact that the majority of his party is set on a collision course with Europe.

The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition has worked reasonably well for the last three and a half years, but neither its record nor the good relationship between the two leaders can hide the fact that the parties come from very different places ideologically. It takes a classically liberal issue like immigration to make the differences plain and show the Conservatives in their true colors.

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