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From the NS archive: Europe's white laager

30 November 1979: Thatcher’s policies coincide with plans to curb non-white entry to the EEC.

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The UK had difficulties belonging to any kind of European Union well before the Brexit vote of 2016. In January 1973, the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath took the UK into the European Economic Community (EEC) – which was formed in 1957 – after president de Gaulle of France had blocked UK membership twice in the 1960s, and taking the total of member states to nine. This piece, from 1979, makes clear that the divisive conversations concerning immigration which played a large part in the Brexit vote have, of course, been around for a very long time. With six million unemployed people in the countries making up the EEC, there were fears that Mediterranean workers in particular would flee to northern European states under the allowances of the treaty. “The crux of the matter,” writes Pat Wheeler, “is that Western Europe's vast numbers of migrant workers – with families, they total 11-12 million – were sucked in to service the economic boom of the 1960s, and are now expendable”. 

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Timed to coincide with the Westminster debate on the Government's immigration White Paper is a Common Market proposal to curb immigration to all EEC countries, due for discussion in the European Parliament next month. Last March, the Brussels Commission proposed in a bland document, Consultation on Migration Policies vis-a-vis Third Countries, that the immigration authorities of the Nine should meet regularly under Commission auspices to review the various national rules on the entry of “third country nationals”, ie, those not possessing automatic right of abode in any EEC country.

Among the immigrants coming under EEC scrutiny would be all Commonwealth entrants to Britain not covered by the patriality definition of the 1971 Act, plus about three-quarters of the “migrant worker” population of Western Europe, most of whom have come in under temporary bilateral arrangements with France and Germany. The Commission is worried that, with six million unemployed in the EEC, and negotiations in progress to admit Greece, Portugal and Spain, thousands of Mediterranean workers could flood to northern Europe under the freedom of movement provisions of the Treaty of Rome. In the negotiations for Greek entry, Greek workers have been barred from enjoying freedom of movement for the first seven years.

The Brussels “white paper” has already had a favourable reaction from the EEC's own Economic and Social Committee, a highly conservative 144-member body representing employers, unions and miscellaneous economic pressure groups in the Nine. But the opinions of that Committee cut no real ice as far as Brussels is concerned, nor do the views of the European Parliament. Real power is vested in the intergovernmental apparatus of the Council of Ministers, which will decide on the immigration proposal at the end of this month.

The proposal is a disguised attempt to harmonise immigration law throughout the Nine for the greater good of “Europe”, though the Commission vigorously denies that this is what it is trying to do. Its senior labour market officials say that the only purpose of the intergovernmental meetings of immigration authorities will be to explore possible areas of agreement in the admission of non-EEC nationals and their dependents; enforceable rules will only follow if the member countries want them. Nobody should be fooled by this. The Commission works to a political programme enshrined in the various EEC summit meetings. The Paris summit of December 1974 called for an eventual European Passport Union, and for “stage-by-stage harmonisation of legislation affecting aliens”. The present Commission document replaces the word “harmonisation” by “consultation”, although the word used in all the other language versions means joint policy-making. The linguistic compromise dates back to February 1976, when “consultation” on the admission of aliens also appeared in a benign sounding Action Programme for migrants adopted by the Council, as a translation of the French “concertation”. This ploy, for which Brussels denies responsibility, must presumably be laid at the door of Harold Wilson's then government, as the English-speaking party to the negotiations. Whoever was so anxious to spare UK sensibilities on the subject of immigration also set in motion a process by which immigration policy is gradually passing to the EEC. Already, for two years, the Commission has been trying to get through a Directive which would place the onus for detecting unauthorised immigrant labour on employers. To be implemented in the UK, it would require police checks on workplaces, or identity cards for immigrants, or both.

In fact, the EEC has no legal powers whatever to control immigration from non-member countries. Under the Treaty, all it can do is to promote freedom of movement for EEC nationals from one member country to another. Its Advisory Committee on freedom of movement, assisted by a technical committee of civil servants from the Nine's Ministries of Labour, monitors the application of the rules to ensure that no obstacles are placed in the way of EEC nationals wanting to cross frontiers to take work in another country. These committees operate under the 10 EEC legislative instruments which amplify the Treaty's freedom of movement clauses. The Commission is now claiming that one of these, Regulation 1612 of 1968, allows them to deal with immigration from outside the EEC. Its paper says “the rules and procedures provided by Regulation 1612/68, particularly Article 19, are sufficiently flexible and applicable to deal with the problem”.

But the Commission's claim is devoid of all legal foundation. Article 19 of the regulation merely allows member countries and the Commission to vet the number of job-placements of nationals from non-EEC countries to ensure that priority is given to EEC nationals. The only category of UK entrants covered by the rule are work-permit holders, already being cut back by the Conservatives. Nothing in the regulation actually allows the control of entry of dependents or the vetting of immigration for reasons other than employment. Yet the Commission's paper implies definite plans to encroach on the entry of dependants. One of the areas on which it is calling for “immediate consultation” is “the policy concerning family reunification in the host countries”. Another is “the policy concerning return home of migrants”.

The crux of the matter is that Western Europe's vast numbers of migrant workers – with families, they total 11-12 million – were sucked in to service the economic boom of the 1960s, and are now expendable. They are throughout the common market increasingly expensive to keep, with the broadening scope of social security systems; their living conditions are an embarrassment to governments which like to claim a progressive record; and there is considerable electoral mileage to be got out of indigenous populations by ejecting them. This is especially true of West Germany, which is the prime mover behind the Brussels bid for immigration control. Warmly supported by the ultra conservative Trade Union Confederation, it got rid of about 800,000 of its immigrant workers between 1974 and 1977 by cutting off benefits, except for repatriation grants, to those who lost their jobs in the recession.

The French froze all immigration by decree in 1974, and tried to cut off the entry of dependents altogether three years later. A battle by constitutionalists succeeded in getting these steps declared illegal at the end of last year, when the government retaliated by drafting new legislation to withdraw work permits from all foreigners unemployed for more than six months, and to legalise the arbitrary arrest and detention of foreigners refused a work permit. The French plan is to get rid of 200,000 of the existing immigrant population each year. Most of them are from the North African ex-colonies, and are non-white. New Dutch legislation forbids the employment of foreign workers unless no local labour is available. In Belgium, the admission of dependents is governed by a confidential instruction issued in November 1977, and is discretionary; those most frequently refused entry are Moroccans. A new Foreigners' Statute, now in draft form, aims to tighten up the conditions of entry and residence for all non-EEC nationals. Except for France, which is sensitive to the EEC trespassing on its sovereignty, all the continental EEC countries are anxious for the Directive on illegal immigration and employment to go through – the biggest possible incentive to employers to take on only white labour.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)