UK Border Agency officer checking a passport

Every three months new immigration statistics remind David Cameron of the most fraught issue in his in-tray. Britons express a longstanding dislike of high immigration, one that their prime minister has promised to respond to. The past few years have been dotted with policy announcements designed to make work or study in Britain less attractive to foreigners. Yet none has had any noticeable long-term effect on overall migration, and yesterday the figures showed net migration to have risen to an all-time record of 330,000.

Mr Cameron’s goal of cutting net migration “into the tens of thousands” has never been more distant. Were he in the mood for blunt truths he would explain how little he can do about it. High migration is a consequence of Britain’s robust economic recovery, which draws workers and their families from across the world. There is no way that inward migration could have been significantly cut without also damaging the UK economy.

Regrettably, and belying his normal pragmatic flair, Mr Cameron has instead used each setback as an opportunity to double down on the net migration target. It is hard to find anything good to say about this policy. Pursuing an arbitrary target encourages the adoption of postures with no objective merit, such as a promise to make it harder for skilled migrants to work in the UK. A government otherwise committed to openness and competition becomes unthinkingly dirigiste towards internationally mobile labour.

Business leaders have long complained of the hostile impression wrought by Mr Cameron’s target. But worse is its effect on the domestic debate. His original “no ifs, no buts” promise conveyed a groundless confidence in the state’s ability to micro manage migration. A failure to deliver leaves him open to the charge of insincerity or incompetence. Critics are left wondering if the government deliberately ignored some easy option for hitting its goal. Missing by such a long way will have piled extra pressure on the renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU — particularly since European labour flows have driven the most recent increases in migration.

Chasing an undifferentiated goal also stymies the development of a more nuanced approach that treats different migration flows separately. For example, more explanation of student migration can dissolve public antipathy, given how students have little long-term effect on population growth and often boost the local economy.

Mr Cameron also needs urgently to rethink his approach to the question of asylum seekers, where the EU faces a far more serious challenge than the arrival of a few more hardworking Europeans to the UK. War and poverty have brought hundreds of thousands of refugees to the shores of the Mediterranean. Germany alone expects 800,000 new arrivals this year, a figure 30 times larger than usually arrive in Britain. Yet its chancellor, Angela Merkel, has deftly held to a principled approach that embraces migration as a long-term good, while remaining sensitive to the concerns of her public. She and French president François Hollande are pressing for an EU-wide solution to a problem on a continental scale.

David Cameron is right that no government can ignore Britain’s concerns with immigration. But this has to mean a greater willingness to face hard truths. His net migration target has failed and should be downplayed for the present. His migration policy must go beyond making the UK a less attractive place to visit. Finally, any lasting solution to European migration issues will demand co-operation across Europe, not just a renegotiation.

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