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British migration debate is used to push an EU exit

Two friendly European Union leaders told British Prime Minister David Cameron this week they'll oppose him if he tries to chip away at the free movement of people within the EU, even if that means Britain leaving the bloc. They’re right to push back.

Any clear-sighted British leader should say the same as Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb told Cameron: Free movement is a fundamental part of the deal that supports Europe’s single market — the creation of that most British and EU-realist of leaders, Margaret Thatcher.

The right, which allows EU citizens to settle, work or retire anywhere in the 28 nations of the bloc, is also the union’s most important aspect to its citizens. Killing the principle at a time the EU is struggling would be foolish for leaders who don’t want it to fall apart.

And that is the key. Cameron is allowing himself to be manipulated by campaigners who want to get Britain out of the EU, and would be happy to see the organization go up in a puff of smoke. The deception works like this: The EU usually doesn’t even make the top 10 election concerns of ordinary Brits, but immigration is their No. 1 concern. So anti-EU campaigners have connected the two, saying that so long as Britain is a member, it can’t control immigration because the free movement principle means 450 million citizens EU can move to Britain any day they want.

A report published on Wednesday by a pair of professors at University College London should (but probably won’t) expose this twisting of Britain’s heated immigration debate to whip up support for a British exit. Contrary to claims by campaigners and government ministers that EU immigrants take advantage of welfare benefits and are a drain on public services, they found the following:

▪ Immigrants from the EU between 2001 and 2011 contributed a net 20 billion pounds ($32 billion) to the government purse, compared to a 617 billion pounds net drain by native Britons.

▪ Those same immigrants were substantially better educated than the local population, and the value of schooling they brought with them (at the expense of other states) was 6.8 billion pounds; indeed the U.K. gets the best of EU migrants — those who go to Germany, for example, are less well educated.

▪ EU immigrants are more likely to work and go home than immigrants from other regions. In part due to the marked increase in immigration from Eastern Europe after the bloc’s 2004 expansion, the median length of stay by all immigrants to the U.K. halved, to 12 years from 24, between 1995 and 2011.

▪ EU immigrants are more likely to be employed than natives (75 percent compared to 70 percent); 8 percentage points less likely to drawn welfare benefits; and 3 percentage points less likely to live in public housing.

Britain needs these people. The East European immigrants vilified by the likes of the U.K. Independence Party are disproportionately employed in the construction industry. A report released Thursday by the consulting firm KPMG warns that Britain faces a 20-percent shortage of skilled construction workers, out of the 600,000 it will need for projects already planned in the next three years.

This doesn’t mean Britain has no immigration problem — net migration has become very high. Illegal immigration is a real issue, as is the use and exploitation of illegal migrant labor by unscrupulous employers. By definition, though, all EU migrants are legal and leaving the union would solve few of the real problems of illegal immigration, while damaging the economy.

The net contributions, participation rates and use of benefits by non-EU immigrants are much less positive than for EU ones. Nor do they tend to return home. But campaigners prefer to conflate the two groups and the challenges they present, because it provides an apparently clear argument for leaving the EU.

Cameron needs to address the concerns of his electorate. But he should do so on his own terms, not in flight from the scaremongering of UKIP and Europhobes in his own Conservative Party. He should stand up for the free movement of people in Europe and roll out measures that would help to deal with the problems of illegal immigration, which are what actually worry people.

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View.

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