London, 23 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The British government is expected today to propose controls on the entry of workers from the 10 new European Union member states.
Home Secretary David Blunkett is due to announce the proposals to the House of Common later today (4:30 p.m. Prague time).
The enlargement of the EU on 1 May to include 10 new member states -- the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- is expected to cause an influx both of legitimate work seekers and so-called "benefit tourists," immigrants seeking to take advantage of generous state benefits. As a result, nearly all current EU countries -- with the exception of Britain and Ireland -- have imposed limits on the free movement of labor from the new members.
The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair has estimated that only some 13,000 new work seekers will arrive each year because of EU enlargement. And since Britain is short of some skilled workers, London had at first opted not to impose any restrictions.
The new proposals will "get the best from Eastern European workers who want to come to our country and contribute to our economy."
Following intense coverage in the media, and calls by the opposition to introduce work permits, Blair relented. He reportedly held a stormy meeting with senior ministers last week, persuading them that some measures are now necessary.
Many observers say the government has been confused on the issue and that there is a danger its measures will be too harsh. Ruth Therrington, a lecturer in culture studies at Warwick University, told RFE/RL: "I think it's very, very hard for the government to deny that [it has been confused on the issue]. Until a few weeks ago, there were no proposed changes, and it has just really been very ad hoc in the last couple of weeks. The government has really been left not knowing what it's doing, and so [it is] having these very, very hasty measures brought in, which can be construed as quite racist measures."
Ian Begg agrees. He is a visiting professor at the European Institute of the London School of Economics. He says the British government was too preoccupied with Iraq and the EU's new constitution to see this coming. "I think, as well, that the recognition that we had not really thought about this issue before now has suddenly dawned on [the government]," he said. "And if Britain were to be the only country not applying any restrictions, it would risk probably a backlash from public opinion, which goes beyond the immediate pressure from the couple of newspapers that were leading the way."
In an article in "The People" tabloid yesterday, Home Secretary Blunkett said, "people who say that properly managed immigration is bad for Britain are plain wrong." He said Britain needs "hard-working people who want to better themselves." He said the new proposals will "get the best from Eastern European workers who want to come to our country and contribute to our economy."
The issue has received extensive, sometimes inflammatory, coverage in the nation's press.
"The Daily Mirror" tabloid last week featured a large front-page headline stating, "Millions of Migrants to Flood In, And There Is Nothing We Can Do to Stop Them, Admits Official Report." The article referred to an EU report that simply stated that curbs on Eastern European migration cannot be extended forever. The respected daily "The Times" has criticized such coverage, noting that the tabloids have "raised the specter of thousands of oppressed Roma flooding into Britain as 'benefit tourists.'"
Therrington acknowledges that some "tabloid excesses" have helped to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment. But she believes the media has generally played a positive part in making the government aware of the situation. "In a way, the British media have led the public opinion on this," she said. "Maybe we can, on the one hand, see the media as being unhelpful in the sense of hyping up things. But certainly, on the other hand, it's been helpful in the fact that they are actually letting politicians and the public perhaps know the real situation as it exists in certain communities, in certain parts of the country."
Therrington also praises a speech last week by the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, Michael Howard, to a racially mixed audience in the northern town of Burnley. Racial riots took place in Burnley two years ago, instigated by desperate Asian immigrants, as well as by local youths. Burnley is also one of the places where several members of the nationalist British National Party have been elected to local government. The party has achieved some success in northern towns and cities where there are large immigrant populations.
In the speech, Howard -- himself the son of Romanian immigrants -- stressed that some measures guarding against "benefit tourists" are in order but that "hard-working immigrants" are a force for good in the country. "Let's not mince our words,” he said. “The policies of the British National Party are based on bigotry and hatred. This is not a political movement. This is a bunch of thugs dressed up as a political party."
Commentators are expressing hope that Howard's speech will help restore the balance of public opinion and mitigate the government's confusion on the issue. But it remains to be seen what the government has in store.
Britain's "Sunday Times" reported the new measures will include blocks preventing migrants from Eastern Europe being able to draw state benefits for up to a year after arriving in the country. The newspaper also says migrants will be asked to first provide evidence of an offer of employment, and to give details of where they plan to live and prove they have means to support themselves.