David Cameron's net migration target is dead, says thinktank

Flower on a grave

David Cameron must admit to voters in the EU referendum that his promise to cut net migration to tens of thousands is effectively “dead” as his plan to reduce migrants’ access to welfare benefits will have little impact if achieved, the thinktank British Future has said.

The British Future pamphlet, drawing on new polling, challenges both the Stronger In Europe and Leave campaigns to be honest with voters on immigration – a key issue that will motivate voters.

Cameron is due to travel to Bavaria this week to the conference of Germany’s CSU party – which shares a parliamentary group in the Bundestag with Angela Merkel’s CDU – in a bid to seek political allies on migration and national sovereignty. He is hoping the CSU leadership will support caps on migrants’ access to benefits, one of his key negotiating demands, as a way of controlling the number of migrants into Germany.

British Future accepts that delaying access to benefits for EU migrants is popular with voters, but warns that, if achieved, the “reforms could have a moderate impact on immigration numbers”.

“There is little to suggest this would be transformative,” British Future said, drawing on its own research showing migrants come to work for jobs and better wages, but not state benefits.

“Many migrants spoke about how and why they had taken entry level jobs for which they were over-qualified; because they saw Britain as a country where promotion and progression in the workplace were possible for those who work hard.” Many of those interviewed said anyone could find a job within six months of arriving in the UK.

“There is little realistic prospect that the government’s EU reform proposals, if agreed, would reduce EU migration by many tens of thousands,” the thinktank suggested. “Yet that is what would be needed for there to be any real-world prospect of the government having a chance of fulfilling its ambition to get overall net migration below 100,000.”

The pamphlet, examining the state of British public opinion on Europe, argues migration is the issue that defines how many people will vote in the referendum. Drawing on unpublished ICM polling conducted in August, it shows almost three quarters of those with strongly anti-migration views plan to vote to leave the EU, while only a quarter of those who see immigration as broadly positive want Britain to leave the EU.

The thinktank adds that Cameron should consider launching a comprehensive immigration review so that he is not seen to be running away from the issue or proposing solutions seen to be false. This review would include a renewed focus on free compulsory English lessons for migrants in the UK for a year or more. It also proposes registration of EU migrants to make it easier for Whitehall to identify when local population surges are putting immediate pressure on public services.

Sunder Katwala, British Future’s director, said: “ Most people now know that being in the EU with free movement means high immigration. It’s better to have real-world plans to manage the impacts of migration – on welfare costs, housing, public services and integration – than promises that are unlikely to be kept or believed.

“Those campaigning for a ‘remain’ vote won’t be trusted by undecided voters unless they acknowledge that reality and make a broader case for why being in this club makes free movement a price worth paying.”

The pamphlet accuses the cross-party and business-focused Remain campaign of sounding “complacent and dismissive”. By resorting to a series of myth-busting arguments that seek to dispel concerns about immigration, the Remain campaign sound “as if there is nothing to sort out”. It deploys “obscure, transactional and abstract arguments” to dismiss concerns about immigration by claiming there is a net economic benefit to the UK.

It warns that Cameron’s referendum campaign may yet be hit sideways by the continuing impact of refugees on UK TV screens. Pictures of closed borders or crowds gathered at Calais add to the broad sense that the EU is not working and cannot cope with the challenges it faces.

British Future argues that it may not be possible to make firm pledges to reduce EU immigration significantly while Britain remains a trading partner with the EU. The thinktank argues it is difficult to show how a post-Brexit Britain could realistically keep its access to free trade with Europe without also being keeping free movement.

It suggests strategists backing Brexit “fear that immigration may prove to be less their trump card than their biggest dilemma. They know that immigration will motivate significant numbers of people to vote to leave – but it could prove to be the issue that toxifies their pitch too. If people feel that the case for exit is all about immigration, with little to say about anything else, then ‘leave’ will be all but guaranteed to fall short of the winning post”.

The pamphlet quotes Dominic Cummings, a key strategist for the Leave campaign, as saying they do notneed to focus on immigration on the twin grounds that those angry about immigration are already motivated to vote to leave the EU, while “focusing on it would alienate other crucial parts of the electorate”.

British Future says the Leave campaign “need to produce a clear and workable plan for post-EU immigration policy”.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 4th January 2016 21.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010