In English port, immigration drives debate on EU referendum

AP News
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Posted: Jun 18, 2016 2:39 AM
In English port, immigration drives debate on EU referendum

DOVER, England (AP) — Don't try to talk to Brian Hall about economics, trading blocs or the value of the British pound. He won't listen.

There's one factor — and one factor only — shaping his view in the June 23 referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union: immigration.

He's tired of Eastern Europeans arriving on these shores, and he plans to use his vote to make that point.

"In Dover, the biggest issue is immigration," said the proprietor of the W&G Hall convenience store. "I'm speaking for a lot of people here — we've been inundated, and they've changed the face of the town, not for the better."

The "remain" camp led by Prime Minister David Cameron appears to be winning the economic argument, with key business figures warning that leaving the EU might bring economic calamity in the form of higher taxes and spending cuts.

The "leave" camp, however, may be winning the emotional argument about how staying in the EU will lead to unchecked immigration and the transformation of British life.

Led by former London Mayor Boris Johnson and UK Independence Party chief Nigel Farage, the "leave" campaigners charge that British workers have been hurt because EU "freedom of movement" laws mean that Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles and others can come to Britain visa-free to live, work and claim benefits.

They warn that if Turkey joins the EU — a prospect that is not imminent — it will give access to Britain to millions more. And they point out that Cameron's government has failed to make good on promises to cut immigration. Official figures show net migration of 330,000 people into Britain last year, far higher than Cameron's targets.

It is not clear if anger over immigration played a role in the slaying Thursday of Labour Party legislator Jo Cox, a backer of the "remain" campaign who had called for more to be done to help Syrians fleeing civil war there.

She was shot dead by a man who, several eyewitnesses said, shouted "Put Britain First" during the fatal attack.

The influx of newcomers has created plenty of resentment in Dover, Britain's prime port for ferry and vehicle traffic across the English channel.

"Immigration is really the issue playing on their minds," said Leo Whitlock, editor of the Dover Mercury.

On a clear day, the coast of France is visible from Dover's famous white cliffs, and they provided a vital vantage point for the early spotting of German bombers heading toward London during World War II.

The concern now is not enemy attack, although an armed Russian submarine was recently intercepted in the Channel. Instead, it is Europeans who arrive legally under EU rules guaranteeing the free movement of people.

To the chagrin of some locals, the rules give Poles, Slovaks, Romanians and others from countries that joined the EU after the collapse of the Soviet bloc the same right to live and work in Dover as Britons who have been here for generations.

Some longtime residents say they are angry about having to compete for medical care and spots in school with newcomers who have no ties to Britain.

The campaign for a British exit from the EU — or "Brexit" — has not spelled out how it intends to curb immigration, but its campaign slogan of "Take Back Control" sums up the group's approach.

Its leaders argue that by walking away from the 28-nation bloc, Britain will once again be able to enact and enforce its own visa policies, without having its hands tied by the EU's implacable freedom of movement policies.

No longer, they say, would citizens of poorer Eastern European countries be able to come to Britain and enjoy the same privileges.

That argument is gaining traction in Dover, a slightly down-and-out small city where an unusually high number of shops on the main commercial street are boarded up, even though figures show there has not been a huge influx into the area.

"They take all the social housing, and the English people who've lived here all their lives have to wait 10 years for housing benefits," said Glynn Booton, 41, repeating a familiar claim about immigrants that is made by "leave" backers.

"My kids will be in the minority in 20, 30 years time. The youngsters can't see what's going to happen, but we can," he said.

"If you don't live here, you don't see it," Booton added.

Official government reports suggest these fears, though widely held in towns and cities with many newcomers, may be exaggerated. The last figures for Kent, the county containing Dover, estimate that more than 94 percent of the population was British at the end of 2014.

Indeed, some visitors from elsewhere in Britain who were passing through Dover to take a ferry to the continent say immigration is playing only a minor role in their referendum decision.

James O'Hara, Simon Shurville and Simon Hunter — three friends who were heading to Belgium for a cycling trip — do not agree on the referendum: One wants Britain to stay in the EU, one wants it to leave and one hasn't decided yet.

But all said immigration was not shaping their vote.

"I don't think immigration is a big issue at all," said O'Hara, a 56-year-old engineer leaning toward a vote to stay. "The truth is a lot of our immigrants have got degrees and they're doing complex managerial roles in a variety of high tech industries."

He said the plan by "leave" leaders to sharply reduce immigration levels would actually hurt the British economy because the country's labor capacity would be abruptly curtailed.

That view is supported by three recent research reports that found EU immigrants actually pay more in taxes to Britain than they take out in benefits and services, said Jonathan Portes, principal research fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in London.

This is because they tend to be working-age people rather than children who need education or senior citizens who need extensive health care, Portes said.

"The idea that if we left the EU it would be so much better because we wouldn't have to pay for their public services and benefits is clearly wrong, because they are more than paying for them," he said.

Taking EU immigrants out of the equation would lead to "slightly" higher taxes or cuts in government services, he said.

The resentment of newcomers in Dover is hardly universal. Some residents believe Britain has an obligation to offer a helping hand.

Donna Marshall lost her job six months ago and is struggling to find work. She plans to vote "remain" because she thinks her chances of employment would suffer if Britain left the EU.

The 53-year-old doesn't see Eastern Europeans as a threat to future employment.

"It doesn't do us any harm to have more immigrants here," Marshall said. "I have had coffee with refugees. They've had such terrible experiences, they've been shot and had their houses burned. They are not people seeking benefits, they want a better life."