Immigration fears spook British government

Bulgarian doctors Bulgarian medics are among those eyeing higher wages in Western Europe

Last week the UK's Immigration Minister Mark Harper tried to calm the rising agitation about migrants arriving in the New Year from Bulgaria and Romania.

It would be a "fool's errand", he said, to make a stab at numbers. In 2004, the UK was the only major country not to have controls on migrants coming from Poland and more than 600,000 arrived in Britain.

This time, he said, Bulgarians and Romanians would have the choice of many countries including Germany and including places like Italy and Spain where there are already Romanian communities.

Most importantly, the minister tried to shut the door on a proposal that the government should extent the current controls beyond New Year's Day.

"It simply isn't legally possible," he said. "Treaties would have to be amended. It would not be complicit with treaty obligations."

And then came the polls. By a huge majority those polled did not want a new round of immigration. Some 85% feared schools and hospitals could not cope.

The issue touches on sensitive issues like control of borders and who, ultimately, is responsible for the benefits system. The polls reflect a deep mistrust about earlier commitments made by politicians to establish a "firm control over immigration".

Wage gulf

And then came the hints that the government was examining extending the period before Bulgarians and Romanians would be able to claim benefits. They might have to live in the UK for up to a year before they would qualify. They would not, for instance, be able to seek the job-seeker's allowance on arrival.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said: "When it comes to new migrants from accession countries in the EU, we need to look properly at the benefits system here to make sure people are coming here to work and contribute, not to take advantage of what is rightly a generous welfare system."

Suddenly, there was the prospect of Prime Minister David Cameron defying the EU, for member states are barred from discriminating between their own citizens and migrants from other EU states. To breach that regulation would almost certainly trigger a legal row which would end up before the European Court of Justice.

I was in Bulgaria last week. It is hard to assess the numbers who will migrate, let alone to Britain, but there are plenty of people who say they will make the journey.

In the end, the discrepancies in wages are too hard to resist. The average annual wage in Bulgaria is about £4,000 compared to £26,000 in the UK. My colleague Emma Jane Kirby found Bulgarian doctors hoping to earn ten times as much in Germany or the UK.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski told me: "For sure some Bulgarians will try and work in Britain. Most of them will look for proper work rather than taking advantage of the welfare system."

But the fear remains that some immigrants will not look for, or find, regular work.

So some EU countries are agonising over how to respond to the lifting of travel and work restrictions. The Times reports that 16 German cities have written to Chancellor Angela Merkel saying they cannot cope with the new arrivals and asking for emergency help from the beginning of next year. Some German politicians openly agree with some of the concerns raised in the UK.

"If Britain wants to enforce its welfare laws better," says Peter Wilding, director of the pro-EU lobby group British Influence, "it has, like the Germans, a wellspring of European goodwill to do so and the allies to push it through".


So what is to be done? For David Cameron there are no easy choices. To defy the EU would cause more than a ripple within his coalition. Some Liberal Democrats would resent a further row with Brussels.

In Europe, some countries would see it as another example of the UK's alienation from the European project. It might make re-negotiation of terms of membership more difficult - but defiance might prove popular with voters.

Horses and riders on a protest in Paris Riders are resisting a rise in French taxes

This controversy raises wider themes. The freedom to move and work in the EU is regarded as a core achievement. Many have taken advantage of it.

But times are difficult and unemployment remains stubbornly high. Despite the billions that have been spent on trying to reduce the inequality between countries like Romania and Bulgaria and the rest of the EU, the standards of living are very different. It reveals just how difficult it is to bring the economies of all 28 EU members closer together.

It is also a period of tension between what governments want and their EU obligations. Yesterday the streets of Paris were filled with riding enthusiasts and their horses protesting against an increase sales tax on riding schools, imposed via a European Commission directive with the backing of the European Court of Justice.

It has triggered the anger of the 2.3 million people who ride. The French government says it is sympathetic to the protests and may try to renegotiate the directive but, in the short term, it will not defy Brussels.

Defiance is a big step, and the UK may have a significant number of allies if it seeks temporary relief from the lifting of restrictions on 1 January.

Gavin Hewitt Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    This country can't take anyone else. Our hospitals, schools, old people's homes, are full to the brim. There is no more room. We would not have to build new houses, there would be less traffic on the roads. The list can go on and on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    It would'nt be so bad if we in England had some of the benefits that the rest of the EU have and were signed away at Maastricht.I for one want to remain English not a member of the United States of Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Just more staff for British business owners to exploit & drive wages down.

    Safe in the knowledge that the British public will put the blame on the foreign worker rather than the domestic employer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    If something is not done to prevent this further wave of immigration, then I feat we will have further pressure to leave the EU from within the country with its resultant loss of jobs etc. We are a small island, our hospitals and schools are at crisis point, we have a housing shortage, we have high unemployment particularly youth unemployment - we cannot take any more! We are full up and fed up

  • Comment number 100.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    It's funny how the Tories were keen to blame Labour's 'unrestrained immigration' for social problems stemming from mass influx in the last decade - heavily backed by their supportive media and now, here we are, on the brink of another mass-immigration and the Tories are doing precisely what Labour did - nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    englands NHS and education cant sustain more and more immigrants most of whom dont bother working or end up not working and claiming welfare, its time our government got some balls and stood up to europe and did whats best for our country

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Socialized healthcare in Romania and Bulgaria is horrible and corrupt. If treatment is available, you will only get treated in a reasonable amount of time if you bribe the doctors, regardless of your condition.

    The vast majority that cannot pay bribes in R&B will now flock to the UK any way they can, with the double whamy of straining the NHS and welfare programs simultaneously.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    In Holland they have an area incorporating Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. You can only move into that area if you have a job there.

    We should apply the same basic logic to our overcrowded areas like London, M4 corridor and the South East.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    I don't want a federal Europe with one government and no opposition or democracy.

    No political party will get my vote that supports this insane open door immigration policy which is driving down wages, the governments/companies just want cheap labour so they can make more profit.

    What about the British children, they will have to work on minimum wage and will never be able to afford a house?

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Fellow Brits, we have a stark choice to make. We either accept the loss of our sovereignty to the EU with the connivance of LIBLABCON and without a vote being cast, or we vote UKIP. Don't believe a word about Cameron renegotiating terms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    @90. Dove

    Yeah but how many of them were arrested multiple times for minor offences? You make it sound like 50% of the Romanians living here are criminals, which simply isn't true!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Lets get serious with some serious facts. Watched a programme on Bloomberg with the much respected Linda Yeuh & guests. They all agreed on this Europe has 25% of the worlds GDP 7% of the worlds population but 50% of the worlds social costs verdict unsustainable. We need to get out now Europe is crumbling under it's burdens. We need to save ourselves & make our own way in the world.

  • Comment number 91.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    ­Metropolitan Police arrested 27,725 ­Romanians over the past five years for offences including rape and ­murder. This is despite just 68,000 ­Romanians living here at present.

    Just stating a fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    and after this will come the Turk, Ukrainians and more until the UK is a third world economically depressed nation without ability to provide welfare for any.
    Then all the immigrants will go back to the much improved standards from whence they came

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Free movement of People and Goods are the corner stone of the EU and correctly so keep you hand of from it. The next move if i am from Essex and i move to Kent no benefit for me the two are the same we are all citizen of the same nation the EU.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    The British Empire once conquered the world. Now the world is conquering Britain through immigration.
    What goes around comes around.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.


    Mass immigration is a wonderful thing and should be welcomed with open arms.

    The UK simply cant cope without more foreign workers.

    While the 4th generation English dole mole sits at home watching telly, the immigrants are doing the work which the english wont, and are climbing social ladders at the same time.

    You get what you can in this life. We need foreign workers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    To answer a few on here.

    Yes people will travel here to get free health care. They do it now from much furter than Bulgaria. Aids treatment is not available in most African countries and heart ops are prohibitive in the USA.

    As for tax. Paying up to 40% tax on a high salary is still better than paying 10% tax on a pittance.

    Remember Boscastle. Just think people instead of water.


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