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

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.