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 644.

    643 Britain is going down with the EU whether it's inside or outside it. Personally I don't think it will ever escape. Its corrupt politicians all have ambitions to gain the good life as employees of Brussels. Look at those happy grinning faces, Kinnock, Blair, Ashton. They got theirs, that's all they care about. They are living the good life.Which has better restaurants, Strassburg or Brussels?

  • rate this

    Comment number 643.

    @641 sieuarlu
    Oh come on sieuarlu. With what you know about us Brits and exact could take the bus. You are a great example of your failed country.

  • Comment number 642.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 641.

    640 The ones who were bulldozed over were those who voted for what they were told was a trade union and nothing more. They didn't put up a fight when it morphed into a centralized supranational government that their own government ceded their sovereignty to. You Brits trusted your government and look at what it did to you. You have no one to blame but yourselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 640.

    634 Biggle

    "The green fields of England bulldozed forever as England becomes the most densely populated, built on"

    Less than 10% of land in Britain is built on:

    Regions like East Anglia are mostly rivers, fen and fields

    If you want to achieve REAL changes petition the government to stop a few landowners owning huge areas of countryside

  • rate this

    Comment number 639.

    2012 ...
    93 Brits murdered in the UK by foreigners.
    632 women raped by foreign men.
    11,000 foreigners in UK jails.

    We need less immigrants, not more.
    It is Westminster's duty to protect their Electorate.
    They're failing in their duty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 638.

    @636 Brother....
    I absolutely agree with your comment. Astoundingly ridiculous press & cohort gov't. With all the aid to other countries, but nothing to Brits. There is no excuse and that goes for the Power companies too.

    @637 Old Londoner
    No!!! and No!!!

  • Comment number 637.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 636.

    Never mind, there's plenty of room in Britain, what with over 30,000 people dying of cold last Winter, not that the story is considered very newsworthy by the look of it. It ought to be massive news headlines as it is an absolute disgrace that ought to force the resignation of the entire Government and ensure that the greed-driven Power companies are re-Nationalized, but no one seems to give a

  • rate this

    Comment number 635.

    #634 Big

    "The green fields of England bulldozed forever as England becomes the most densely populated, built on, stressed out western economy in the world."

    --you obviously missed the beautiful slums and wonderful broken down industrial buildings

    --and the mass exodus to leave on the first boat away from those beautiful Isles ?

    -- and its poverty ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 634.

    Oh dear, J Hoovers scary vision of Britain is of a city of strangers the size of Nottingham arriving each year, every year.

    The green fields of England bulldozed forever as England becomes the most densely populated, built on, stressed out western economy in the world.

    Ah bless, he's a Metropolitan little sweetie. Self centred, but sweet none the less.

  • rate this

    Comment number 633.

    That's overpopulation for you.

    You can't say you didn't know.


  • rate this

    Comment number 632.

    I believe that the EU was an effort by some to fix something that wasn't broken. Multiculturalism is great on paper but the reality is it goes against our human nature. We don't blend other animals in nature. Political correctness stifles the expression of discontentment ...causing animosity and if we aren't careful....implosion.

  • Comment number 631.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 630.

    627. LucyJ. I don't think there's much chance of the English language being phased out. Eu sou Ingles. Gosto de falar Portugues e adoro o pais. What is your problem? Are you American by any chance? If so,try to get your fellow citizens to take a closer interest in geography and linguistics beyond your borders and stop denigrating rightfully proud foreign cultures you wouldn't recognise on a map.

  • rate this

    Comment number 629.

    @627 LucyJ
    With all do respect Lucy, the US is an entity unto itself and in no way an example of Europe today or in the future. English is the most widely spoken language in the world. French, Spanish German, Italian etc., are spoken by many of us. I think Am. has huge problems - ignorance being near or at the top of the list. Turn off your crap reality tv and read a book.

  • rate this

    Comment number 628.

    The sad thing is I feel is the BBC does nothing about the seriousness of the third world immigration problem. I'm a business manager, give me a microphone and i'll attack MP's live on TV about this because they are quite clearly detached from the serious third world immigration problem

  • rate this

    Comment number 627.

    Beam: Pageants

    Just one example

    Another example
    Not long ago in Arizona the state passed a law banning classes that teach hatred based on race
    because there were problems with some Latino-only classes there that taught hatred against white people

    B: Many Eurpeans speak 3 or 4 languages

    But do you want your native language phased out?

  • rate this

    Comment number 626.

    Great, let's invite a Bulgarian to do unskilled work and then give benefits to a uk based person that can't get a job. Makes perfect sense????

  • rate this

    Comment number 625.

    @592.The J Hoovers Witnesses

    How does uncontrolled immigration benefit a country with 2.5million unemployed, stagnant salaries and rising cost of living. More people, more competition for jobs, reducing salaries.

    Govt priority should be its own peoples welfare, not naïve, ideological concepts such as the USEurope as you regularly enthuse about without fully understanding the consequences


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