LONDON -- Prime Minister David Cameron promised more stringent rules Monday to reduce outsiders' access to social, health and housing benefits, reflecting a fraught debate in Britain over the potential impact of increased immigration from southeast Europe that could fuel a rightist threat to his Conservative Party.
The prospect of citizens from Bulgaria and Romania gaining unfettered access to the British labor market under European Union rules has raised alarms among some Britons about competition for jobs, strengthening anti-immigrant sentiment and helping fuel the insurgent United Kingdom Independence Party.
From next January Romanians and Bulgarians will have the right to work in all 27 European Union nations but the discussion in Britain is particularly vigorous because officials hugely underestimated the number of immigrants who would arrive after eight other formerly Communist nations joined the European Union in 2004. The government says that, between 1997 and 2009, net migration to Britain was 2.2 million, and the issue has become so prominent that the main political parties in Britain have been trying to reposition themselves on it.
In a speech to a university audience in Ipswich, in eastern England, Mr. Cameron began by praising generations of previous immigrants, saying "we're rolling out the red carpet to those whose hard work and investment will create new British jobs." But, he also said that Britain had been a "soft touch" under the previous government and that net migration needs to come down radically from hundreds of thousands a year to just tens of thousands. "When it comes to illegal migrants, we're rolling up that red carpet and showing them the door," he added.
His words drew a sharp response from immigrant advocacy groups. "This rhetoric may curtail rights to benefits on a minor scale, but relatively few migrants compared with 'indigenous' people actually claim benefit anyway," said Habib Rahman, head of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. "The real effect of this speech will be to further increase the intolerance and the hostile reception that immigrants are facing from some sections of society."
Meanwhile other criticism of the proposals, and a lack of concrete figures about their likely impact, highlighted how little room for maneuver Mr. Cameron has because of European rules, and because of worries that a crackdown will alienate trading partners in fast-growing non-European countries.
In order to qualify for benefits immigrants need to prove that they have a legal right to live in the country and intend to do so. And, under the measures announced Monday, applicants now face a tougher series of questions to succeed. In fact the existing test is already the subject of complaints from the European Commission, the executive of the 27-nation bloc, which is threatening legal action against Britain arguing that it breaches European agreements.
Nevertheless Mr. Cameron announced plans to go further so that jobless immigrants who manage to claim benefits will face a new hurdle after six months on welfare. At that point payments would stop "unless they can demonstrate they have actively sought work throughout that period and have a genuine chance of finding work."
In practice the new requirement would involve proving that the immigrants'English proficiency would allow them realistic hope of gaining work. Critics predicted the impact would be small, pointing to a study by the British government published last year that estimated that fewer than 13,000 people from the ex-Communist eastern Europe were claiming unemployment benefits.
Mr. Cameron also said benefits would be withheld from outsiders who were not entitled to work in Britain.
"Ending the something-for-nothing culture needs to apply to immigration as well as welfare," he said, drawing a parallel between measures to be imposed on immigrants and huge cuts in welfare spending on Britons themselves that the government has devised under its austerity program to counter its debts.
On Britain's creaking state health service, Mr. Cameron said a bigger effort would be made to reclaim the cost of treating foreigners from their own governments though the amount of money this would save was unclear.
"We want to stop the expectation that our health service is free to the entire world," he said. "We should be clear that what we have is a free National Health Service, not a free International Health Service."
The opposition Labour Party has admitted that the last government, which it led, made mistakes on immigration, and last week the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, suggested that visa applicants from some non-European countries should make cash deposits which would be refunded when the left the country, thereby discouraging them from overstaying.
In 2004, when Poland and seven other East European nations joined the European Union, Britain opened its job market to them immediately. A study commissioned by the government at the time suggested that 5,000 to 13,000 people from the new member states combined would arrive annually through 2010. In fact, the 2011 census showed 521,000 Polish-born people listed as residents in Britain, with the vast majority having arrived after 2004.
Because of that miscalculation, Britain exercised its right to impose temporary work restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians after their nations joined the E.U. in 2007. Those restrictions expire at the end of this year.
Stephen Castle reported from London and Alan Cowell from Venice.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.