In the U.K., Like the U.S., the Issue Is Immigration

The United Kingdom is going through a battle over immigration that sheds light on what is happening here in the U.S. Under the European Union’s guarantee of freedom of movement, the U.K. has been unable to restrict the flow of immigrant from other EU member states, many of whom are drawn by Britain’s relatively lavish welfare programs. Currently, around 400,000 EU immigrants are receiving welfare benefits in the U.K. In addition, of course, many Britons resent both the wage competition and the cultural challenges that large-scale immigration brings.

This has led to the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the one political party that, in the view of many Englishmen, actually looks out for their interests rather than those of Europe’s elites. UKIP wants to curb immigration and take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Its popularity is growing rapidly, and Tories fear that UKIP will draw off enough votes to cost them the upcoming election.

So Prime Minister David Cameron has moved to the right on immigration. Yesterday he offered proposals to cut back on immigration, and seemed to threaten to take Great Britain out of the EU:

Mr. Cameron said migrants coming from the EU should have to wait at least four years before receiving benefits such as tax credits or access to state-subsidized housing. EU migrants also would no longer be eligible to receive state child welfare payments unless their children have moved with them to Britain, to stop the practice of using the handouts to support family in their home country.

In a veiled threat to the rest of Europe, the prime minister also said the proposals will be “an absolute requirement” in a renegotiation he has pledged to hold with the EU if he wins a second term. If he succeeds, he said he would campaign to keep Britain in the bloc in a national referendum on EU membership to be held by the end of 2017—but if he fails to secure those changes, “I rule absolutely nothing out,” he said.

Cameron’s speech drew a rebuke from Angela Merkel:

Following Cameron’s speech on Friday, Merkel said: “The German government has in the past again and again underlined the significance of the principle of the free movement as it is anchored in the EU treaties. It is important that Cameron commits himself to this central pillar of the EU and the single market.”

How this will play out remains to be seen, but for the moment, the salient point is that the immigration issue is so potent in Great Britain that the Prime Minister felt compelled to address it, lest the Conservatives’ support slip away to UKIP.

Immigration is the issue, more than any other, that calls into question the central rationale for the European Union. The drive for the EU did not come from the citizens of Europe’s numerous countries; rather, it grew out of a consensus among those countries’ elites that Europe must be formed into a nation rather than a continent. There were two main reasons for this conviction: first, no single European country could rival the United States as a world power, but a unified Europe could do so; and second, union provided the elites with an opportunity to rule by decree from Brussels without being much impeded by those pesky voters back home.

The European unionists insist that Europe is indeed a country. Thus, as Merkel argues, there can be no significant qualification on the right of Europeans to migrate from one EU state to another. This is, indeed, the law within the United States: the Supreme Court has held that our Constitution guarantees a right to move freely within the U.S., and that local welfare rules that significantly discourage that movement are unconstitutional.

But the United States is, in fact, a single nation: that question was settled by the Civil War. Therefore, Oklahoma farmers were free to move to California, Mississippi sharecroppers were free to move to Detroit, and Americans from the other 49 states are currently free to move to Texas. The fundamental reality in the U.K. is that a large majority of its citizens have never accepted the idea that Europe is a country. They don’t object to a guy from Manchester being on welfare if need be, but they don’t understand why someone from Eastern Europe can cross the Channel and promptly sign up for the dole, or compete on even terms for a factory job. Those folks are perfectly fine, no doubt, but they aren’t Englishmen.

While the fiscal and economic costs are significant, the ultimate issue is cultural. Most Britons are not happy about the ways in which mass immigration has changed the U.K. Like Americans, they never voted to fundamentally transform their country. Their anger has made this issue more potent than any other, and the British establishment is scrambling to co-opt it.

If Europe really were one country, Angela Merkel would be right, and British taxpayers and factory workers would have nothing to complain about. Likewise, if Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala were part of the United States, open borders would make perfect sense. But they aren’t. There is nothing wrong with the people who live in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey; most of them are fine folks. But they are citizens of another country. They are Mexicans, not Americans. Therefore, they do not have any legal or moral right to emigrate to the United States outside of America’s laws or in opposition to the wishes of its citizens, nor are Americans under any obligation to adjust our customs, laws or linguistic preferences to suit them.

Since it is at least arguable that Europe is a country, however illegitimate its birth may have been, the immigration issue is less black and white in the U.K. than it is in America. In view of the fact that no one contends that the U.S. and the nations of Central America constitute a single nation, the issue here is clear-cut: the American people have the right to decide, in their own interests, who will be permitted to enter the country, and on what terms.

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