Can We All Stop Saying Migrants Move for Welfare Benefits Already?

Benefits reform in Britain is a solution that won’t work for a problem that doesn’t exist. Makes for great politics, though.

Britain's Prime minister David Cameron arrives at the European Council headquarters for an extraordinary summit of European leaders to deal with a worsening migration crisis, on April 23, 2015 in Brussels. European leaders gather on April 23 to consider military action, at an extraordinary summit to deal with a worsening migration crisis after a series of deadly shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.   AFP PHOTO / THIERRY CHARLIER        (Photo credit should read THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Britain's Prime minister David Cameron arrives at the European Council headquarters for an extraordinary summit of European leaders to deal with a worsening migration crisis, on April 23, 2015 in Brussels. European leaders gather on April 23 to consider military action, at an extraordinary summit to deal with a worsening migration crisis after a series of deadly shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. AFP PHOTO / THIERRY CHARLIER (Photo credit should read THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images)

When David Cameron took to the stage at London’s Chatham House think tank on Tuesday, he did so promising to clear up years of uncertainty about how Britain would renegotiate its relationship with the European Union. Ever since the British prime minister delivered his famous Bloomberg speech in January 2013, in which he promised to reform the terms of the United Kingdom’s membership and then hold a referendum on them, he hadn’t provided many details about how he planned to proceed.

By the time he walked off the podium, things were hardly any clearer. His main pillars of reform were noncontroversial, even generic. He wanted to boost European competitiveness, which no one disagrees with; he wanted to protect access to the single market for non-euro-using countries, which was never in any doubt. He also demanded that Britain be exempt from the pursuit of “ever closer union” — another idea that has long been accepted by European leaders. In fact, the creation of a dual-speed Europe is one of the very few areas of consensus in an increasingly acrimonious and crisis-stricken Brussels.

The only item of genuine political content in the address came when Cameron announced that he wants to restrict access to benefits for migrants coming from other parts of the EU until they have been in the United Kingdom for four years. The prime minister insisted this would help cut down the number of migrants coming to Britain — and he came armed with statistics to help make his point. In a series of media interviews Tuesday morning, Cameron and his ministers said new data show that 43 percent of EU migrants claim benefits in the first four years they’re in the country. And so “to those who say that this won’t make a difference,” he declared in this speech, “I say, look at the figures.”

Only we can’t look at the figures. The government refuses to publish the data upon which they are based. Civil servants in the Department for Work and Pensions were supposedly the compilers of the data, but on Tuesday they refused to answer questions about them or provide them to journalists. The Guardian has been trying to get hold of the figures since August, but its freedom-of-information requests have been repeatedly rejected by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Treasury.

It’s likely that the 43 percent figure is inflated — incorporating, for instance, the tax credits claimed by the thousands of families in which Brits are married to non-British spouses and other statistical sleights of hand. But we don’t know, because we can’t verify it.

Regardless, it’s time to put an end to the myth that generous benefits are a pull on migrants — a favorite trope of conservative British politicians — for good. Even if the 43 percent figure could hold up under scrutiny, it would still be irrelevant. Just because many migrants do claim benefits, it does not follow that they came to the U.K. to do so.

We know this from experience. In 2013, Parliament passed a law that denied European Economic Area (EEA) citizens without work jobseekers’ allowance — the British equivalent of unemployment — child benefits, child tax credits, and housing benefits for their first three months in Britain. The next year the number of EEA migrants rose significantly.

We know this from academic research: There is no empirical evidence that immigration decisions are made on the basis of welfare entitlements. In many countries, migrants claim fewer benefits that the native population, even when they are at a higher risk of poverty. Research on Polish immigration to the U.K. shows most Poles were motivated by what you would expect: a perception that the U.K. is wealthier and more developed than their home country. Welfare was rarely mentioned, and you can see why: EU nationals — who come seeking work — are actually more likely to be employed than British citizens. Overwhelmingly, the evidence shows that they come to work and earn, not sit and claim.

Moreover, we know that European immigrants are good for the British economy. Those who arrived in the U.K. between 2000 and 2011 contributed more than 20 billion pounds to public finances during that time period; they brought with them human capital that would have cost the U.K. 6.8 billion pounds in education spending. Those from the original EU member states contributed 64 percent more in taxes than they received in benefits. Those from the Central and East European countries — the latecomers that joined the EU after 2004 and whose citizens have generated so much consternation in the U.K. — contributed 12 percent more than they received.

That makes immigration essential to the governing Conservative Party’s deficit-reduction plans. As the head of the government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility, Robert Chote, has said, immigration “does tend to produce a more beneficial picture” for the government’s finances.

So why would a British prime minister be so keen to risk political capital by ginning up a solution that would not work for a problem that does not exist? The answer lies partly in matters of short-term political strategy. Cameron doesn’t really want to leave the EU. But his party is almost completely unified in its Euro-hatred. He can’t buy off the hard-core anti-EU bloc of backbenchers, but he might still be able to carry his party’s mainstream with him in ultimately voting against a Brexit.

A fight with European leaders on the potent issues of benefits and immigration will give the impression that he really is representing British interests in a grand fight against EU federalism, even though the rest of his proposals are as substantial as confetti at an autumn wedding. Cameron runs the risk of losing this battle, but after two years of prevarication and plotting, he clearly thinks he has a good enough chance of winning it to have risked taking his ideas public.

But the second, more important part of the answer goes to the heart of how immigration is discussed in the U.K. in 2015. Britain fundamentally lost its ability to control immigration when it signed up to freedom of movement within the EU. As long as it wishes to remain an EU member, it is simply not going to get that power back. Cameron was told — rather firmly, in fact — by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that there would be no changes to freedom of movement when he floated the idea of an “emergency brake” on immigration before his Bloomberg speech. So, faced with increasingly hysterical, tabloid-fueled hatred of immigration on the one hand, and the inability to actually control it on the other, and with no actual desire to leave the European Union — an arrangement from which Britain gains much more than it gives up — the government has started to issue policy announcements that have less to do with conditions in the real world and more to do with public relations.

This was the case, for instance, when Home Secretary Theresa May announced a crackdown on health tourism, the supposed trend in which EU citizens visit the U.K. to use its health-care system for free. May was informed that health tourism does not exist. Her response — an extraordinary and revealing phrase — was to refuse to “quantify the problem” and to call her crackdown instead a “point of principle.” There was a similar response when the European Commission asked the U.K. government to provide evidence that EU migrants were coming to the U.K. to access benefits. The government responded by saying: “We consider that these questions place too much emphasis on quantitative evidence.”

The government’s disdain for evidence is a recurring theme in the immigration debate. Cameron, who was a PR man before running for Parliament, has always been a prime minister who can be best understood through the lens of public mood, rather than policy. That’s why he promised — impossibly — to cut net migration to the tens of thousands, down from hundreds of thousands, twice. Twice. The first time, he was told he was crazy for making a promise it was not in his power to fulfill (to do so would involve controlling how many Brits chose to leave the country). The second time critics looked on in startled horror as he made the same promise again, despite knowing it was not in his power to keep it.

Now Cameron has dragged immigration and benefits into the EU referendum debate, ensuring that it will be a key test in negotiations over EU membership and the referendum campaign that will follow. European leaders lining up to oppose him should know that the sight of him battling with them over these issues is the very reason he is proposing them. If he is victorious, there is no evidence the policy would do what he wants it to. And if it did do what he wants, it would sabotage the economy he was elected to manage. But then, Cameron knows that. He’s not doing this in order to implement this policy. He’s doing it so he can be seen to be fighting for it.

Photo credit: THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images

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