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David Cameron: Immigration ‘Needs To Be Controlled’

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s immigration plan will ban welfare benefits for new European Union migrants, according to a much-publicized speech delivered on Friday.

“Immigration benefits Britain, but it needs to be controlled,” Cameron said. “It needs to be fair. And it needs to be centered around our national interest.”

British politics has been roiled by the success of nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party (or UKIP), and Cameron’s speech on Friday is seen as a clear acknowledgement of a rising anti-immigrant tide. The Conservative prime minister sought to tap into this sentiment by pointing to what he said was “a lax approach to immigration” by his Labour predecessors.

“Their points system included an entire category for people outside the EU with no skills to come to the UK,” Cameron said, according to a BBC transcript of his remarks. “It was too easy for foreign nationals to become citizens.”

He added that the generous system also led to “disproportionate numbers of jobs going to foreign workers” and included a “welfare system [that] allowed new EU migrant workers to claim immediately, without having paid in, which is in contrast to many other countries.”

The prime minister also pointed to a million new immigrants from the newest EU members, largely due to “economies considerably poorer than” Britain’s and the government’s decision to avoid the kind of migration controls that prevented a flood of new arrivals in other European countries.

But despite those appeals, David Cameron’s immigration speech also included a strong rebuke of the kind of nativist sentiments pushed by UKIP. He pointed to Britain’s “openness” to immigrants as a fundamental part of the country’s character and history.

“We should celebrate it,” he said. “We should never allow anyone to demonize it. And we must never give into those who would throw away our values, with the appalling prospect of repatriating migrants who are here totally legally and have lived here for years.”

The speech came a week after President Obama announced reforms to the American immigration system, which Cameron referenced as a sign that even the U.S. as the “ultimate melting pot” had to confront the issue.

Saying he wanted to assert “control” of immigration to Britain, the prime minister described a series of proposals that would prevent migrants from other EU countries from being able to claim certain benefits, like tax credits, aid for children who live abroad and public housing. His plan would also set a time limit of six months for migrants to find work before being deported.

According to the BBC’s Nick Robinson, the benefit bans are “a tougher version of an approach already set out by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.” But The Economist says that while these policies would indeed be tougher than what currently exists, they “would amount to much less radical action than” had been under consideration at 10 Downing Street.

Having been strongly discouraged in such thoughts by the German chancellor Angela Merkel, for whom the freedom of movement is sacred, Mr Cameron has plumped for more modest reforms. But they would still, he acknowledged, require changes to the EU treaties. As a result, this has dramatically changed the terms of Mr Cameron’s European strategy.

In addition to European skepticism, Cameron also faces criticism at home. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, said that Conservatives “repeat mistakes of the past, where they’ve over-promised and under-delivered on immigration…and that does a great deal of damage to public confidence in the immigration system.”

UKIP leader Nigel Farage also tweeted his belief that the new policies are only an attempt to “catch up” to his party’s own popular anti-immigration stance.

There is also the question of the extent to which the benefit curbs will actually reduce migration numbers. As The Economist points out, the unique success of the British economy compared to the rest of Europe may keep it a popular destination regardless of David Cameron’s immigration policies.

[photo credit: The Prime Minister’s Office]