Sir Andrew Green of MigrationWatch UK is a former diplomat, and thus skilled at making his points without frightening the horses. On this site today, he asks “what can be done?” about the right of Romanians and Bulgarians to enter the country on January 1 – in just over six weeks time or so – and, although he doesn’t quite put it this way, his answer is: “nothing much”. We could tighten access to out of work benefits, plus housing benefit, though not in-work benefits, since this would require “a renegotiation of the treaties”. In any event, as he points out, our Government has no powers to remove EU citizens unless they have been convicted of an offence which attracts a two year prison sentence: “put another way, those who come and are unable to support themselves (whatever their original intentions) cannot be forced to leave”. Sir Andrew is more optimistic about getting support from other European countries, such as Germany, France and Holland, for such a move than he is for obtaining it for tightening access to benefits.
Theoretically, he writes, “the Government could impose a quota on the number of national insurance numbers issued to nationals of Romania and Bulgaria. Alternatively, they could require new workers to apply for a work permit and only admit the highly skilled”. Today’s Daily Mail reports that this idea is championed by Nigel Mills and about 40 other Conservative backbenchers. However, “the European Commission would certainly take the Government to court and any such policies would be thrown out by the European Court of Justice, if British courts had not already done so”. In any event, I find it hard to imagine either the Liberal Democrats or the Government’s law officers – or, it is necessary to add, Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary – going along with this course. I may be wrong, but I read the message of Dominic Grieve’s recent speech at the City of London Guildhall as being that while Britain may choose either to stay in or leave the European institutions, it must not break the law, either way.
The Home Office seems to be taking the same view. It is quoted in the Mail as saying: “This government has extended transitional controls to the maximum period of December 31. There is no power to extend them further as we are bound by the terms of the Accession Treaties negotiated by the previous Government”. Sir Andrew writes that MigrationWatch predicts “that the UK population of these two nationalities will grow by between 30,000 and 70,000 in each of the first five years, with a central estimate of 50,000”. The Mail says that “any movement of this order would decimate Mr Cameron’s pledge to cut yearly net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ by 2015″. However, it isn’t evident whether such an influx would show up in the figures in two year’s time. Sir Andrew notes that “it is not clear how many migrants will arrive in time to affect the immigration statistics in the period before the general election”.
He also points out that only Ireland and Sweden joined us in opening our borders to the Poles and others in 2004, and that all other EU countries are doing so this time round. None the less, the pattern of events next year may well be as follows. Whatever the size of the movement of Romanians and Bulgarians into Britain in the early months of 2014, it is unlikely to be under-reported in Fleet Street and elsewhere. That would set up Nigel Farage’s new year speaking tour up nicely during the run-in to the European elections. If UKIP tops the poll in May, it will doubtless rise in the polls from its present standing of roughly ten per cent. David Cameron will then be faced with the task, since the party takes votes disproportionately from the Conservatives, of squeezing it down to three per cent or so in less than a year. This looks to be rather a tall order. (And by the way, any statistical confirmation of a large influx will damage Theresa May’s leadership ambitions, perhaps irreparably.)
All the available opinion polling suggests that the EU is not a major issue for voters. And one way of reading the evidence it provides is that while voters believe immigration is an important matter for the country, it doesn’t have the same salience for them and their families. This may change if the number of Romanians and Bulgarians that enters is near the middle or top range of MigrationWatch’s estimate. The Conservative leadership should therefore be looking to find the best political solution possible to the problem, in order both to free itself from the shackles of the EU issue (being bound by them has done it little good over the last 20 years) and, far more importantly, to do the right thing for the country. Given Cameron’s lack of room for manoevre, the best course he could take would be to announce that his personal view is now that Britain should leave the EU unless its commitment to the free movement of people is torn up in any renegotiation – which, of course, it won’t be.