This morning saw a marked shift in David Cameron’s efforts to navigate his way to a more nuanced policy on European Union migration. Though it was a speech for all non-Ukippers to take comfort from – safe in the knowledge that the Prime Minister will not pander to a small backward-looking minority on immigration – it is not a game-changer in the context of the wider debate, as he might have hoped.
More progressive voices might therefore question whether the speech’s emphasis on curbing immigrants’ abuse of the welfare system is perhaps overstated. Some may also wonder if Cameron’s plan to restrict in-work benefits for EU migrants can withstand criticism that all those employed in Britain have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their passport.
Yet Cameron’s proposals are a welcome step back from suggestions that he would unveil plans to bring in an emergency brake on EU migrants, which would have had dire consequences for the UK’s economic growth.
Previous nods towards curbing free movement have been met with hostility from across the business community, with the CBI and the EEF (among others) quick to stress the fundamental importance of EU migrants in filling skills shortages and allowing our economy to prosper.
What remains palpably clear is that reaping the benefits of the single market, namely a free market for goods, services, capital and labour for 500 million consumers, hinges on the ability to respect all four principles in order for the countries within it to flourish. As British Influence’s Director, Peter Wilding, pointed out on Newsnight this week, not even ‘Brexit’ could appease Eurosceptics’ calls for access to the single market without free movement.
The policies outlined this morning are therefore a welcome shift in the debate, which stressed the benefits that Britain has gained through being an outward-facing economy that has profited, both economically and culturally, from immigration for generations.
Similarly important is that Cameron’s proposals are achievable. The European Commission’s response makes clear that tackling abuses of the welfare system is for member states alone to decide. Speaking to the centre and not to the right of his party, in language which colleagues in Brussels can relate to, is surely a step forward in bringing about the positive, progressive and consensual reform that is popular on both sides of the Channel.
Cameron’s speech will not please anyone, left or right, nor will it put the public debate about freedom of movement to rest. This is an issue for hearts as well as minds. Nevertheless, Cameron has paved the way for a more pragmatic focus on how to tackle immigration, providing an opportunity to address some of the public’s concerns whilst making a clear moral stand about the benefits that immigration has brought to Britain’s past, present and future.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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