Futile and illegal — the case against Sarkozy’s migrant summit

Could Britain be heading for Roma-style expulsions?

A group of high immigration officials from six countries, including the UK, invited by President Nicolas Sarkozy, meets in Paris today to see what can be done to undermine the principle of the free movement of people between EU member states.

The French government, along with its Italian allies in Silvio Berlusconi's administration, has made it clear that it thinks European Union rules in this area are far too lax, and do not give sufficient authority to nation states to restrain the movement of European migrants when it appears to conflict with their political interests.

Back in 2008, Rome led the way in seeking powers to tackle these matters when it pushed through a law allowing the mass round-up and deportation of Roma, mainly of Romanian nationality.

At that time, the European Commission intervened to abrogate the measure on the grounds of an obvious conflict with EU citizens' directives. These limit the expulsion power of national governments to individual cases, in which grounds for action have been established on the basis of a clear threat to public policy, public security or public health.

Since then the French have stepped to the forefront in claiming wider powers of expulsion for their immigration authorities, and, like the Italians, made people of Roma background the principal targets for their actions. In 2009, Sarkozy's government returned 10,000 people, mainly citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, a further 8,000 people being removed so far in 2010.

The Paris meeting has been proclaimed by its sponsors as an opportunity for other national governments sympathetic to this approach to form a bloc that will overwhelm legal objections from the EU, and to permit the deportation of EU nationals as a general response to the economic downturn.

The Italian immigration minister, Roberto Moroni, revealed his thinking on this point when he claimed the right on the part of national governments to act against migrants who have failed to secure for themselves "a minimum level of income, adequate housing and not being a burden on the social welfare system of the country hosting them".

Yet this is a terrain that has already been explored, both by the last Labour government and by the current coalition in recent months, through special projects directed against migrants from the central European and Baltic countries that joined the EU after 2004.

Under one such pilot programme, UK Border Agency officials have issued notice to homeless migrants who are out of work or not attending a course of education, informing them that they have no right to reside in the UK under EU law. If they are not prepared to leave voluntarily, expulsion is underpinned by the prospect of immigration enforcement.

The number removed under this procedure up to now is believed to be small -- in the region of 13 people, with another hundred being served a "minded to remove" letter. But UK Border Agency and community and local government officials are reviewing the work of the pilot, with a view to rolling it out across other regions of the UK. If this is the case, the numbers exposed to the threat of losing their rights to residency might quickly rise.

People working with vulnerable migrant communities have pointed to the futility of such policies, which are likely to increase insecurity as migrants removed from one country begin to drift in larger numbers across the whole of EU. Perhaps of even more concern should be that removing European migrants under such circumstances may well turn out to be unlawful under EU law -- an assertion made recently by prominent lawyers in the field.

Heather Ureche, of Equality, a UK charity working with Roma families, anticipates that a number of Roma may arrive from autumn onwards as pressure to leave France and Italy persists. She has also seen evidence that the UK welfare authorities have started adopting a much harsher approach to immigrants of eastern European origin, withdrawing child and family tax benefits, threatening destitute parents with care proceedings against their children, and increasing inspections of multiple-occupancy homes, leading to more people being pitched on to the street.

It is clear that defenders of the basic human rights of migrants will resist all of these attempts to promote even higher levels of insecurity among vulnerable groups. They expect to receive the support of civic society organisations, from trade unions through to the churches. The really interesting question is whether the defence of rights to free movement across Europe is an issue that will prick the conscience of the Liberal Democrat wing of the coalition, and that of the Labour opposition.

Don Flynn is the director of Migrants' Rights Network.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.