Immigration fury

Free Europe in shackles

Print edition : January 24, 2014

The Sculeni border crossing point from Romania to the Republic of Moldova. Britain is gripped by fresh fears that a new wave of immigrant workers will arrive after restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals are lifted on January 1. The government has rushed through legislation restricting E.U. migrants from claiming unemployment handouts. Photo: AFP

British Home Secretary Theresa May, who has spoken out in favour of curbing immigration. Photo: AP

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said the proposed policy would spell disaster for British businesses. Photo: Sang Tan/AP

Marine Le Pen, president of the Far Right party Front National, which is gaining ground in France. Photo: PIERRE ANDRIEU/AFP

A leaked British government proposal to cap immigration from E.U. member-states has provoked fury across Europe, with the U.K.’s allies accusing it of betraying the E.U. charter.

FOR THE ORDINARY EUROPEAN, ASPIRING for better job prospects or looking for a foreign holiday on a tight budget, the biggest joy of being a European Union citizen is the right to free movement within Europe.

A Pole or a Hungarian does not need a visa or a work permit to settle in Paris or London, just as a French or British national is free to settle and work in Warsaw or Budapest, though, understandably, the traffic is to a large extent one-sided.

This is the fundamental principle of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and has been rightly hailed as one of the most positive expressions of the European spirit of post-Cold War reconciliation and solidarity consistent with the demands of globalisation.

But the good days may be about to end as the affluent “big boys” of northern Europe are beginning to have second thoughts about maintaining an open-door policy which, they say, has seen them “swamped” by migrants from poorer member-states of southern and eastern Europe. This, they argue, has put “intolerable’’ pressure on public services and a welfare system already reeling from the effects of the global economic crisis.

Britain was the first off the blocks to oppose the continuation of the current policy as it faced the prospect of a fresh wave of immigration with the lifting of restrictions on the right of Romanians and Bulgarians to settle and work in the United Kingdom. In fact, it has gone beyond clamping down only on immigrants from new E.U. members and is reportedly planning an annual cap on migration even from older member-states across the E.U., including richer countries such as Germany, Holland and Austria.

According to a leaked Home Office report published by The Sunday Times, the government wants migration from across the E.U. to be capped at 75,000 a year in keeping with the ruling Tory party’s election promise to its hard-core anti-immigrant voters to bring down annual net migration from hundreds of thousands to “tens of thousands”.

Other proposals reportedly include restrictions on E.U. immigrants in claiming benefits; job reservations for British citizens; and further restrictions on labour movement from poorer E.U. countries until their gross domestic product (GDP) is 75 per cent of Britain’s.

The move follows a failed attempt to achieve this by cracking down on migrants from non-E.U. countries, especially the Indian subcontinent. With general elections looming and immigration high on the voters’ agenda (it is among the top three main concerns of most Britons along with the economy and public services), the ruling party is under pressure to come up with a vote-catching plan.

The proposal has provoked fury across Europe, with Britain’s allies accusing it of betraying the E.U. charter. Senior E.U. figures have suggested that Britain should leave the Union or renegotiate the terms of its membership under the Treaty of Rome if it decides to implement the leaked plan.

There has also been widespread criticism at home, exposing deep divisions at the heart of the government. The Tories’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have warned against attempts to “pull up the drawbridge’’ and turn the country into “Fortress Britain’’. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, said such a policy would be “illegal’’ and a “disaster’’ for British businesses, besides being in breach of the E.U.’s terms of membership.

Warning that it would have a devastating impact on British nationals living in other E.U. states, he said, “It would be very unwelcome to the two million or so Brits who live and work abroad, who I don’t think would thank the Conservative Party for entering a tit-for-tat race to the bottom where everybody in the E.U. starts pulling up the drawbridge. My advice to the Home Office is to spend less time leaking policies that are illegal and undeliverable and spend more time delivering on the policies that we have agreed as a coalition government, notably the reinstatement of exit checks.”

Even many Tories see this as a covert attempt by the Europhobic faction of the party to push through its agenda. Home Secretary Theresa May, seen as a contender for Tory leadership to replace David Cameron, has been accused of playing footsie with the E.U. charter.

“This is a ludicrous proposal from Theresa. We all know the game she’s playing and her plans lead to exit from the European Union. However, there are only 30 Tory MPs who believe we are ‘better off out’ but at least 50 determined to stay in. This shows how out of touch she is,” one Tory member of the government told The Times.

Far from denying the leaked proposal, Theresa May has indirectly confirmed it, saying there are no immediate plans to implement it. What is significant is that such a thing should have been discussed at all at the highest level. While it has clearly embarrassed the government, it has also allowed it to justify a measure that is widely seen as an attack on the progressive vision of a borderless Europe.

Thus, Theresa May wondered, “Why shouldn’t national governments be allowed to impose a cap on numbers if European immigration reaches certain thresholds?”

“Looking ahead, we must seize the opportunity presented by the Prime Minister’s plan to reform the E.U. and address the problems caused by free movement,” she said.

Prime Minister David Cameron was even more explicit, arguing that there was “need to open up the whole area of European obligations and how free movement works”.

“I'm in favour of people being able to go and work in different European countries. But clearly... the recent joinings… I think, means that we do need reform. So we should consider what are the best ways of achieving that. There will be an important discussion between now and the next election,” he said, giving by far the clearest indication of the importance his party attaches to the vote-getting potential of the issue.

A profound irony

There is a profound irony in Britain’s new approach to E.U. immigration. It was the only country which did not introduce any curbs on migrants from the new member-states when 10 new countries, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, joined the E.U. in 2004. The result was that it was flooded with new migrants, especially from Poland, turning the government’s unrealistically low estimate on its head.

Since then it has been desperately trying to cut its losses—first by targeting non-E.U. migrants, and now E.U. nationals. Not wishing to be wrong-footed again, the government is straining every nerve to keep the numbers from Romania and Bulgaria down. There is talk of restricting their benefits and rights once they enter as a way to deter others from coming.

The government rhetoric and the media coverage has been so negative that, according to a poll, some 13 per cent of Britons believe that as many as 500,000 Bulgarians and Romanians could come. A more realistic figure is in the region of 50,000. Both Bulgaria and Romania have protested against demonising their citizens by portraying them as “thieves’’ and “free-booters”.

Growing xenophobia

The latest British move comes amid growing xenophobia in Europe, with immigrants seen as “scroungers”’ and a “threat” to indigenous values. Workers from poorer countries have been accused of “stealing” local jobs by accepting low wages and—contrary to evidence—of “living off” benefits. This anti-foreigner mood has spawned a proliferation of Far Right groups committed to sending immigrants “back home”. In several European countries such as Greece, Austria and the Netherlands, they sit in Parliament; and in France, Marine Le Pen’s racist Front National is knocking at the doors after its sensational showing in a byelection in the summer.

Even left-of-centre parties such as Britain’s Labour Party have joined what is rapidly becoming a race to the bottom to bash the “ugly” foreigner. For, therein lie the votes.

Even so, clamping down on the free movement of people within the E.U. is carrying it a bit too far. It is “daft”, as one of Cameron’s own MPs colourfully put it.