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26 May 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 5:35am

Immigration and the EU: Tory ministers play with fire

All parties know that open borders are required to stay in the single European market. But there is

By Rafael Behr

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has told the Daily Telegraph that contingency planning is under way to address the prospect of a surge in immigration from crisis-stricken countries (chiefly Greece) in the event that the single currency collapses or members are forced to leave.

EU states are not supposed to restrict movement of people within the  union (with some “transitional controls” applied to relatively new members). The single labour market is an essential component of the whole project to create a unified trading space. Some tightening of controls is permitted in “exceptional” circumstances and Britain is not a signatory to the Schengen accord that waives border checks between most continental EU members.

Still, a unilateral imposition of visas and other restrictions on Greek or Portuguese workers coming to the UK would be an irregular and, indeed, extraordinary contravention of the spirit of the European economic cooperation. That isn’t to say it wouldn’t be popular.

The role that the European single labour market plays in Britain’s constantly anxious debate about immigration is a peculiar one. It substantially limits the capacity of UK governments to pre-determine the number of foreign nationals working in the UK; it also offers British citizens many lucrative opportunities to live and work elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, that is the point – mutual advantage for all EU workers.

But politicians from all parties hate discussing the free movement of labour because they are all, in theory, signed up to the single market project. There has always been some nervousness in Westminster about broaching the subject for fear that wary and sceptical acceptance of Britain’s EU membership would drain away completely it were being portrayed as the engine of mass immigration. The consequence of this squeamishness is nonsensical policies and pronouncements around the whole immigration topic: Gordon Brown’s meaningless pledge of “British jobs for British workers”; the coalition’s immigration “cap” that only applies to non-EU nationals.

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There are signs, as hostility and anxiety around the EU grow, that Conservatives are getting ready to be a little bit more explicit and aggressive on this subject. Employment minister Chris Grayling told an audience at an event run by the ConservativeHome website last week that the Tories should be more forthright in mobilising fear of immigration in their anti-Brussels message:

It’s much easier to explain to a voter that we are unhappy with what the EU is doing because, for example, it wants us to allow people to come here and settle and be able to access our benefit system without the safeguards that we have in place today. That’s something everyone can understand.

It is not a particularly attractive political proposition or even a very honest one given the parallel benefits that Britain gets from the single market. But it has the potential to be crudely, nastily effective.