Immigration and the EU: Tory ministers play with fire

All parties know that open borders are required to stay in the single European market. But there is

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has told the Daily Telegraph that contingency planning is under way to address the prospect of a surge in immigration from crisis-stricken countries (chiefly Greece) in the event that the single currency collapses or members are forced to leave.

EU states are not supposed to restrict movement of people within the  union (with some “transitional controls” applied to relatively new members). The single labour market is an essential component of the whole project to create a unified trading space. Some tightening of controls is permitted in “exceptional” circumstances and Britain is not a signatory to the Schengen accord that waives border checks between most continental EU members.

Still, a unilateral imposition of visas and other restrictions on Greek or Portuguese workers coming to the UK would be an irregular and, indeed, extraordinary contravention of the spirit of the European economic cooperation. That isn’t to say it wouldn’t be popular.

The role that the European single labour market plays in Britain’s constantly anxious debate about immigration is a peculiar one. It substantially limits the capacity of UK governments to pre-determine the number of foreign nationals working in the UK; it also offers British citizens many lucrative opportunities to live and work elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, that is the point – mutual advantage for all EU workers.

But politicians from all parties hate discussing the free movement of labour because they are all, in theory, signed up to the single market project. There has always been some nervousness in Westminster about broaching the subject for fear that wary and sceptical acceptance of Britain’s EU membership would drain away completely it were being portrayed as the engine of mass immigration. The consequence of this squeamishness is nonsensical policies and pronouncements around the whole immigration topic: Gordon Brown’s meaningless pledge of “British jobs for British workers”; the coalition’s immigration “cap” that only applies to non-EU nationals.

There are signs, as hostility and anxiety around the EU grow, that Conservatives are getting ready to be a little bit more explicit and aggressive on this subject. Employment minister Chris Grayling told an audience at an event run by the ConservativeHome website last week that the Tories should be more forthright in mobilising fear of immigration in their anti-Brussels message:

It’s much easier to explain to a voter that we are unhappy with what the EU is doing because, for example, it wants us to allow people to come here and settle and be able to access our benefit system without the safeguards that we have in place today. That’s something everyone can understand.

It is not a particularly attractive political proposition or even a very honest one given the parallel benefits that Britain gets from the single market. But it has the potential to be crudely, nastily effective.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear