The new year brought an end to restrictions on immigration from two of Europe’s poorest nations to one of its wealthiest, and to hear British politicians and commentators tell it, the whole island could be at risk of sinking from the strain.

Days into 2014, the evidence of an influx is sparse. Handfuls of new migrants have blinked into the glare of television cameras at London’s airports and wondered why all the fuss.

But the panic over the easing of immigration rules has revealed much about hardening attitudes in a country that has begun to consider yanking the welcome mat after decades as one of the world’s more accommodating and generous destinations for newcomers.

Whether legal or illegal, whether working or not, immigrants are getting the cold shoulder from Brits. Even with the economy here showing signs of revival after years of recession, the backlash appears to only be growing as the country becomes more internationalized.

“Four million net migrants in the last 13 years to Britain represents an astonishing social change, and one that people simply don’t want,” said Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP).

Farage is both the nation’s most prominent channeler of that view and its primary beneficiary.

His upstart party has surged ahead in the polls in large part because of its calls to drastically cut the flow of foreigners. With European Parliament elections in the spring and a national vote expected next year, Farage in an interview predicted “a political earthquake in Britain,” one that he said would be fueled largely by dissatisfaction over immigration.

Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, has had to tack hard to his right to keep from being outflanked.

He has introduced measures to block newcomers from claiming government benefits and has called previous decisions to allow waves of Eastern European immigrants “a huge mistake.”

Those comments earned him an unusual reprimand from Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev, who suggested that Cameron was isolating Britain and pushing Europe toward the “old-fashioned politics of building walls and iron curtains.”

But Cameron’s remarks fit the national mood.

The political equation here contrasts sharply with that in the United States, where Democrats have gone on offense in pushing Republicans to back
a loosening of immigration rules or risk alienating Latino voters.

Negative views

Opinion polls show that Britons have significantly more negative views about immigrants than either their fellow Europeans or Americans. Britons by wide margins say that immigration is more problem than opportunity, and they worry that the nation’s already overstretched social safety net won’t be able to withstand the pressure of another wave.

That’s despite ample evidence that immigrants contribute economically by injecting fresh energy, ideas and capital, and by filling gaps in the workforce.

“Lot of people in the U.K. have this impression of the Eastern Europeans coming here and they want to claim benefits and pinch our housing and pinch our jobs. That’s absolute rubbish,” said Anthony Snell, who runs a berry farm staffed primarily with foreign labor. “They are a positive benefit to our country, and we should welcome them with open arms.”

‘Reprehensible politics’

But Britain’s often-raucous press corps has focused on immigrants as benefits cheats and violent criminals.

“Migrant War on British Streets,” screamed the headline in one British tabloid, the Daily Star.

“Cheeky Beggars,” proclaimed another, the Sun.

Politicians have helped to feed the narrative, warning that the expected influx of Bulgarians and Romanians will depress British workers’ wages and suck the nation’s social welfare system dry.

Rodney Barker, an emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics, said Cameron and the Conservatives are in a “race to the bottom” with Farage and UKIP to prove their anti-immigrant bona fides.

“It’s reprehensible politics, because this kind of thing can easily spin out of control,” Barker said. “But I’m afraid it’s also clever politics. It hardly ever fails.”

Thirteen percent of Britain’s 63 million population is foreign-born. Last year marked the 16th straight in which net migration to Britain — the difference between those arriving and those leaving — topped 100,000. That’s despite a pledge by Cameron to bring the number down to the tens of thousands.

After three years in office, he recently acknowledged that it probably won’t happen soon — if at all. The government’s ability to hit its target is hampered by the reality that immigration policy is not entirely under London’s control.

As a member of the European Union, Britain must open its borders to citizens from throughout the continent, in keeping with the 28-member union’s principle of free movement across national boundaries. And with many economies on the continent still limping along, Britain has proved an alluring destination, particularly for those from Europe’s less prosperous south and east.

“Britain appears to be coming out of recession more quickly than the others, and there’s a fear of ‘Oh, here we go again’ — that as the rest of Europe remains in the doldrums, we’ll be the target of a heavy immigrant push,” said Robin Niblett, director of the London-based think tank Chatham House.

The government has declined to estimate how many Bulgarians and Romanians will ultimately come ashore, fearing a reprise of the mistake the Labor government made in 2004, when it badly underestimated the effect on immigration from the E.U.’s expansion into Eastern Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Poles and others ultimately poured in.

Migration Watch UK, which advocates tighter immigration controls, has estimated that 50,000 Bulgarians and Romanians will move to Britain each year now that citizens of those countries have been given unfettered access.

Farage said the number could be considerably higher, noting the pull of “making 40 quid a day [about $65] begging on the streets of London, which is what you make in a month in Bucharest.”

But Bulgarian and Romanian officials have said that Britain flatters itself if it thinks it will be much of a draw. They note that lower costs of living and sunnier weather make other European countries much more attractive destinations.

During a recent rainy dawn at London’s Luton Airport, hundreds of passengers streamed off flights from Bulgaria and Romania. But there appeared to be few new immigrants among them.

Marian Marculescu, a 29-year-old Romanian who moved to Britain four years ago under a more restrictive set of immigration rules, said he doesn’t think that will change.

“If people wanted to come to England, they’re already here. The numbers are going to be really, really low,” said Marculescu, who originally came to pick strawberries and raspberries and now helps to manage a farm. “But the discrimination against Romanians and Bulgarians, that will probably increase.”

Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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