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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder