Nick Clegg speaks at Bloomberg's London headquarters on June 9, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Clegg's new stance on EU immigration shows he has learned from his defeat to Farage

The Lib Dem leader cannot afford to look intensely relaxed about tens of thousands of newcomers. 

One of Nick Clegg's worst moments in his debates with Nigel Farage came when he was asked what the EU would look like in 10 years' time. His response - "I suspect it’ll be quite similar to what it is now" - may have been honest but as Lib Dem strategists later acknowledged, it made him appear hopelessly wedded to an unsatisfactory status quo. 

With this in mind, Clegg's speech tomorrow on EU immigration is his most significant attempt to date to demonstrate that he "gets" the need for reform. While defending the principle of freedom of movement, he will argue that migrants from new member states should not be allowed to move to other EU countries by registering as self-employed while transitional controls are in place. 

He will say: 

When Romania and Bulgaria joined, Labour said no one from those countries would arrive ahead of the transition controls being lifted at the beginning of this year.

Yet 60,000 Romanians and Bulgarians were already working here through a loophole for anyone who registered as self-employed.

Is it any wonder – when people have been repeatedly told one thing only to then see another - that so many have lost faith in government’s ability to manage the flow of migrants from new EU states?

Clegg will promise that the Lib Dems will "argue for the removal of the special exemption for the self-employed" and will "insist on it" if they are in government after the next election. "This loophole can’t be forced on Britain and we mustn’t accept it."

He will also propose allowing EU countries to "put the brakes on" immigration from new member states "if people begin arriving in numbers too big for our society to absorb successfully". This would mean giving Britain and others the right to extend transitional controls beyond the current maximum of seven years. 

It is worth reflecting how significantly the Lib Dems' stance has changed since the 2010 election, when they argued for a (now abandoned) policy of "earned citizenship" for illegal immigrants. Their repositioning means that all three of the main parties now support tougher controls on future EU migration. 

The danger for the Lib Dems is that their new policy will alienate those liberals who welcomed their unashamedly pro-immigration policy, but as the party's MPs will tell you, plenty of their voters, most notably in the south west, are far from relaxed about an open borders approach. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.