Cameron Gets Smart on Immigration

This is no time to panic.

Photographer: Oli Scarff - WPA Pool/Getty Images

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has revised -- "clarified," he might say -- his thinking on migration within the European Union. The new approach is one he should have advanced in the first place, but never mind: It isn't too late to get it right. The next step is for Cameron's counterparts in Europe to recognize and welcome the change.

Up to now, Cameron has yielded too much to the anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment that is helping the U.K. Independence Party mount its bid for political power. In particular, he's flirted with the idea of immigration quotas, which would violate the core EU principle of free movement of labor. The new policy steps back from that. Instead, Cameron is proposing to tighten the rules under which migrant workers can claim benefits from the government. This makes sense.

Cameron's Tories and the opposition Labour Party face a severe political test. They have to defeat the UKIP insurgency without acting unjustly or putting the U.K. economy in harm's way. Immigration quotas are a bad idea not just because migrant labor benefits the U.K. economy and its public finances, but also because such restrictions can't be squared with the country's EU commitments. Standing on the principle of quotas could end up forcing the U.K. out of Europe -- the very thing the UKIP wants, and what Cameron hopes to avoid.

The new approach has a better chance of success. In one respect, Britain's policy on benefits for migrants is unusually generous. In many cases, if you reside in the country, you qualify: There's no need to establish an employment history or any record of taxes paid. This fuels a sense of unfairness that the UKIP is exploiting. Cameron now proposes, among other things, a four-year delay before immigrants can start to claim some benefits and in-work payments (such as low-income housing subsidies).

It's a shame he didn't suggest this earlier. It's also a shame that he still isn't countering the UKIP's arguments on their merits -- by explaining more forcefully that immigration and EU membership are crucial to the U.K.'s prospects. Nonetheless, he deserves credit for the shift, which isn't without risk: It exposes him to the charge (not least from militants in his own party) that he's breaking his word and surrendering to the EU's unreasonable demands.

Cameron's EU counterparts need to recognize where their own interests lie -- namely, in helping Cameron to keep the U.K. in the EU. His new policy will need to be refined further, but the basic approach can plausibly be reconciled with the EU principle of free movement. Other EU governments ought to signal that they can, after all, do business with the U.K. on this issue. More generally, they should show that they are open to the idea of reform, so long as it conforms to the EU's fundamental purposes.

No doubt, Cameron will keep on testing their patience. They might remember, however, that the harder they make things for him, the easier they're making them for the UKIP and for Europe's other anti-EU parties.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.