In English port, immigration drives debate on EU referendum

Friday, June 17, 2016
Chinese tourists pose for photographs for a member of their group Thursday on the White Cliffs of Dover, south east England.
Matt Dunham ~ Associated Press

DOVER, England -- 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 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 British workers have been hurt because EU "freedom of movement" laws mean Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles and others can come to Britain visa-free to live, work and claim benefits.

They warn if Turkey joins the EU -- a prospect that is not imminent -- it will give access to Britain to millions more. And they point out 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.

That's 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 recently was 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 said 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 by walking away from the 28-nation bloc, Britain once again will 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 more than 94 percent of the population was British at the end of 2014.

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