The UK’s Immigration Distraction

LONDON – Do British voters hate foreigners, or merely freeloaders? That is essentially the question British Prime Minister David Cameron posed in his long-awaited speech on immigration from other European Union countries, delivered last month at the headquarters of the construction-equipment manufacturer JCB.

Cameron’s gamble is that voters do not mind Poles or Lithuanians operating JCB’s machines on construction sites all over the United Kingdom. What they mind is people immigrating to the UK to take advantage of its welfare benefits.

The speech was Cameron’s answer to the recent defections of two of his Conservative Party MPs to the anti-EU, anti-immigration UK Independence Party, which he fears could steal Conservative votes in the general election next May. But, as clever as the speech was, it is unlikely to succeed in beating back UKIP – and it leaves the British debate about EU membership focused on the wrong issue.

To be sure, Cameron’s speech was a more statesmanlike gamble than many – even within his own government – had anticipated. Some of his remarks in recent weeks had suggested that he might reject outright the free movement of EU citizens – one of the union’s founding principles – and dare other European governments to oppose him.