LONDON — Britain and France have been the cat and dog of Europe, yapping and hissing at each other over the centuries, but they’re singing the same song now in close harmony over immigration and what to do about how it’s changing the face of Europe.
The not-so-huddled masses are yearning to breathe free on the ride to a good life in the prosperous countries. The music is familiar to American ears, but the words are brisk and straightforward, unencumbered by the fear of being politically incorrect.
The French still call the English “the Anglo-Saxons,” as if history has stood still. (A 10-minute stroll through Notting Hill Gate or Earl’s Court demonstrates how the term is so 20th century.) The words are not taken as the intended insult, but often as a wistful recollection of yesteryear.
The French are still the frogs, but now frog and bulldog share an abiding dilemma, with a sympathetic Germany standing by to help with cutting “Eurocrats” in Brussels down to size.
It’s about “benefit tourism,” and it has little to do with authentic tourists and a lot to do with government benefits. The problem is not immigration, so much as migration, the free movement from country to country within the European Union.
But it’s of a piece with the fast-growing movement of migrants from the impoverished nations across the globe.
The issue is acute now because come Jan. 1, Romanians and Bulgarians will be free to work anywhere in Europe, as set out in the agreement to join the European Union in 2007. A transition period restricted access of Romanians — a bit of a euphemism for “gypsies” — and Bulgarians for seven years, and it’s the restrictions that expire on New Year’s Day.
Forty-six Conservative members of Parliament have signed a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron demanding that the restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians stay in place. Britain, they said, “is full up.”
Francois Hollande, the French premier, decries that the “social dumping” of the poor from Eastern Europe poses “a threat to the economic and social fabric of France.”
Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, agrees that the “poverty migration” is causing “considerable social problems” in Europe.
The “Eurocracy” in Brussels, the administrative capital of the European Union, doesn’t appreciate such back talk, even from the big mules in the union. One senior EU official, a Hungarian, says Britain is being unreasonable and risks being “the nasty man of Europe.” This was not a nice or smart thing to say, and the London newspapers, even the liberal ones, scolded Brussels harshly.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the chairman of the EU, lectured the British prime minister as if he were a schoolboy who had got his homework wrong. He takes “good note” that Britain wants its laws to conform to European law, but the EU is waiting impatiently until Britain presents its proposed changes.
This rankles the many in Old Blighty. The prime minister promises to persuade his European counterparts to end the “vast migration” from poor to rich countries. But until that distant day, he is under pressure to tell Brussels to buzz off.
In a testy exchange in the House of Commons, one Tory member urged the Home secretary, the blond, glamorous Theresa May, to find her “inner lion or inner tiger” and do what’s right for Britain, and take whatever the Eurocrats dish out in fines.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, possessor of a name out of the colonial past as well as skepticism of the nannies in Brussels, says that “the free movement of people is no longer working in the interests of this nation, so why does Her Majesty’s government lack the political will to change the law?”
The anger transcends the usual politics of left (Labor and Liberal Democrats) and the Tories of the right. Jack Straw, the former Labor home secretary, has apologized for his government’s failure to make the necessary restrictions that would have limited the great influx of Poles when Poland joined the EU in 2004.
Some on the left complain that there’s nobody left to praise the expensive nostrums of the runaway welfare state. “The shadow home secretary,” grumbles the London Guardian, the influential journal of the respectable British left, “matches and sometimes exceeds every Tory commitment to restrict migration.”
Boris Johnson, the sharp-tongued mayor of London and a rising star in the ranks of Tory politicians, is, like the French, puzzled why migration is tilted toward those who would “threaten the social fabric.”
At the moment, he says, “we are claiming to have capped immigration by having a 60 percent reduction in New Zealanders, when we can do nothing to stop the entire population of Transylvania — charming though most of them may be — from trying to pitch camp at Marble Arch.” Harsh, perhaps, but heartfelt.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.