A gathering storm

Observations on immigration

Just when the Home Office is at its most vulnerable, after months of torrid headlines and ever more drastic upheavals, an issue is looming that will present a severe test of the government's mettle in the raw area of immigration.

It relates to a decision that is expected to be made later this year by the 25 member countries of the European Union to accept Bulgaria and Romania as its latest recruits in January 2007. This in itself will be controversial because of widespread doubts about the sufficiency of reform in these former countries of the Soviet bloc.

The matter is particularly fraught in Britain, because the government has to decide whether to allow Bulgarians and Romanians not only to travel to the UK - a right conferred automatically on joining the EU - but also to work here.

If this sounds familiar, it is. Three years ago, the government was faced with a similar decision about what to do with the eight eastern and central European countries that were to join in 2004. At that time, ministers had a rough ride from the press, particularly the Daily Mail and the Sun, which warned of a flood of Poles, Slovaks and Czechs coming to the UK.

Then, ministers took the brave decision to allow the new EU citizens the right to work here. But Bulgaria and Romania present different challenges, and the newspapers know it. In a particularly ruthless piece in the Sun in May, Bulgaria was described as a country "up to its neck in Mafia-style corruption" whose membership of the EU would leave Britain exposed to drug-running, trafficking and organised crime.

There is consensus in government that Bulgarians and Romanians should have the same rights to work as other EU citizens. It is fair, and it makes for better relations with two potential EU allies. But the case will not be helped by there having been a gross underestimate of numbers of immigrants last time around - in 2003 the Home Office predicted that the number coming to work in Britain as a result of the expansion of 2004 would be fewer than 20,000. In practice, the total has probably been 20 times higher - though, as a result, UK employers have been able to fill labour shortages and the British economy has benefited.

So expect an almighty row, with the Conservatives unable to resist joining the tabloid pressure - a cause helped by the fact that EU countries such as Germany and France will not be allowing the two countries the same freedoms as the UK wants to provide.

In the weeks before the previous accession date in 2004, ministers wobbled under the onslaught, even though Labour's parliamentary majority was greater than now. But in the end, the government held its nerve. It should do so again.