JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press
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Generations of British children learned history through a book called “Our Island Story.” Nowadays the old-fashioned Edwardian primer is experiencing a nostalgic revival — and its title sums up the mood of many as Britain heads into election season.
For British politicians of every stripe, immigration is increasingly seen as a problem to be curbed rather than an opportunity to be embraced. The 28-nation European Union, to which Britain belongs, appears a bureaucratic burden, not a strengthening alliance.
This increasingly isolationist mood has begun to alarm the U.K.’s EU neighbors. Even Germany, among the most sympathetic to British views, has warned that an attempt to restrict immigration from other member states — an idea floated by Prime Minister David Cameron that goes against a core EU principle — could lead to Britain leaving the union.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Monday that “freedom of movement inside the European Union is not negotiable for Germany.”
In response, Cameron’s office said he was determined to address “the impact of EU migration” on Britain. That could mean limiting benefits for new arrivals rather than stopping them outright.
The German warning is music to the ears of Mark Reckless, a British lawmaker who recently defected from Cameron’s Conservatives to join the U.K. Independence Party, which advocates British withdrawal from the EU and tighter controls on immigration.
“I think it’s good to have clarity and for people to be clear that we face a choice between European Union membership and control of our own borders, including who comes here from southern and Eastern Europe, ” said Reckless, who is running to hang onto his Rochester seat in a Nov. 20 special election triggered by his party switch.
His arguments are finding fertile ground in Rochester, a town 30 miles (50 kilometers) southeast of London with a castle, a cathedral and tourist-luring ties to Charles Dickens, who lived nearby.
Retiree Pat Holyer is one of many Rochester residents who thinks UKIP’s policies make a lot of sense.
“It’ll stop all these people coming over here and living off the country, ” said Holyer, sitting at a cafe along a main street sprinkled with Dickensian shop names such as “Little Dorrit’s” and “Sweet Expectations.” ”Half of them only joined (the EU) so they can come over here and get free medical treatment.”
UKIP has only one seat in Britain’s Parliament, with Reckless likely to become the second. But the party took the largest share of the British vote in May’s European parliamentary election, receives plenty of media attention and has managed to make the bigger Conservative and Labour parties focus on Europe and immigration.
Fearful of losing voters to UKIP, Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on EU membership if he wins a national election in May. Conservative politicians increasingly describe the 28-nation bloc in UKIP-like terms, as a money-sucking bureaucracy that has flooded the country with immigrants. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, a Conservative, recently said some British towns were being “swamped by huge numbers of migrants.”
It’s true that hundreds of thousands of migrants from Eastern European countries moved to Britain during the economic boom that preceded the 2008 global economic crash. After several years of recession and austerity, they face accusations of sucking up welfare spending and taking jobs from British workers.
Britain has seen a surge in immigration in recent years. The number of foreign-born residents almost doubled between 1993 and 2011. London’s status as a global, English-speaking city has helped make Britain attractive to newcomers from around the world.
Every year hundreds of thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East try to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, and several thousand die in the attempt, including 24 Monday off the coast of Turkey. The mayor of the French port of Calais told British lawmakers last week that many of these refugees want to get to Britain because of the country’s generous welfare benefits.
Some academics argue that the negative picture of immigration is misleading — that immigrants create jobs as well as fill them and are less likely to be on welfare than people born in Britain. Towns with high levels of UKIP support are often those — like Rochester — with relatively few immigrants.
Migration is also a two-way street, with almost 2 million Britons living in other EU countries.
Godfrey George, a Rochester bookseller, said immigration “has always helped this country” and feels leaving the EU would be “shooting ourselves in the foot.”
But leading British politicians — wary of losing voters to UKIP — are increasingly reluctant to make a pro-immigration case.
That’s a mistake, according to former Prime Minister Tony Blair. In a recent interview with Progress magazine, Blair called UKIP a party that had a “nasty core of prejudice” and said other politicians should not let it frame the debate.
He said Cameron should tell UKIP: “‘You don’t understand the way the world works today, your policies will take us backwards and we’re not going there.'”
Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.