Labour’s long anticipated approach to the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union (EU) was announced last week. As expected, Home Secretary John Reid has opted for various restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians working in Britain.
Back in 2004 when ten new countries joined the EU, eight of them from eastern Europe, Labour gambled on allowing open access to the labour market for citizens of those countries, in line with existing EU citizens. This time, says Reid, there will be a gradual opening up of the Labour Market to Romanians and Bulgarians rather than an immediate open door policy.
Two questions arise - why has the government acted this way and what will the consequences be?
The new policy should be seen as one element in the toxic mix of racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia which has developed in recent months and which the government has now decided to throw itself into rather than oppose. On the back of a wave of scare stories about the supposedly negative effects of eastern European migration on the existing workforce and social services, Labour decided to talk tough about imposing restrictions on the two new EU member states.
This is despite there being precious little evidence of widespread pressures on social services and education and as yet only anecdotal evidence of downward pressure on wages. Also little noticed is the fact that some of the western European EU states who imposed labour market restrictions in 2004 have since eased or scrapped them - in order to get a slice of the action, no doubt. So the government’s approach is, in part, an entirely unsurprising cave-in to anti-immigrant agitation.
And what timing! A cynic might argue that, even in purely economic terms, the government - and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) - can afford to cave in to hostility against prospective Romanian and Bulgarian migrants. After all, Britain has already tapped into the migrant workforce of most of eastern Europe, especially the largest country, Poland, to the great benefit of the British economy - that is of British bosses.
However, the consequence of the policy will not be a ban on Romanians and Bulgarians coming to Britain. That would be unthinkable for the most pro-expansionist of the current EU states. In fact, the home office has announced that visa requirements will cease at the end of 2006. Romanians and Bulgarians will then have the right to enter the UK freely but will only be allowed to work if they meet certain immigration rules.
Hence the real reason for the threat of £1000 spot fines for working illegally: because like other EU nationals, and unlike any hapless African or Asian who is caught, the Romanians and Bulgarians cannot be deported unless they have been convicted of a serious crime. You do not have to be a genius (and Lib Dem Nick Clegg and Tory David Davies certainly are not) to see that those who do want to work outside of the rules may well be forced into the arms of low-wage, no-tax employers. No wonder the Guardian described Reid’s proposals as 'fragile'.
So Reid’s apparent toughness actually hides political weakness. The end result will be as follows: those at the bottom are, as usual, hit hardest; a political victory is handed to the anti-immigrant lobby and the racist right; they retain the initiative when a policy which pretends that it is stopping immigration is patently shown as no such thing in a very short space of time, leading to a fresh clamour from the right that really tough measures are needed, measures which ‘the discredited liars of Labour’ (etc etc) are unable to deliver. More reason than ever to build and strengthen unity between the new migrant workers and the existing workforce and to argue politically against the ‘toxic mix’ being so shamelessly stirred by this bankrupt government.