Focus: Land of hope?

On 1 May, 75 million new Europeans are eligible to work in Britain. As this deadline nears, so the scare stories mount. Andy McSmith examines the facts, and finds that Tony Blair's government may yet find itself swamped - not by hordes of economic migrants but by the political fallout
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair looked to the east and saw friends and allies. Standing in a huge hall in Warsaw, more than three years ago, he delighted his East European audience by the warmth with which he invited 75 million people to join the EU - which they will do, formally, on 1 May.

Others were less enthusiastic than the British Prime Minister. The Germans and Austrians, in particular, were worried by the prospects of vast numbers of migrant workers crossing their borders in search of jobs, but Mr Blair was not to be put off by that argument. "People can always find good reasons for delay," he said. One of the principle reasons was the "popular but misplaced fears that freedom of movement means massive shifts of population."

"But let me be frank," he added. "Without enlargement, Western Europe will always be faced with the threat of instability, conflict and mass migration on its borders ..." Mr Blair rightly anticipated that with their recent memories of Soviet domination, the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and others would prefer the British vision of an EU of independent nation states with deregulated economies and flexible labour markets, to the Franco-German version.

But now, more than three years on, Mr Blair's role as the friend of Eastern Europe has stirred up an ominous coalition of Conservatives, bigots, tabloids newspapers, and anxious intellectuals, forcing him to choose which matters more, his strategy for Europe or popularity at home.

Once the Prime Minister had dismissed those fears of mass migration as misguided, the natural follow-up was that the Home Office generously announced that from the moment the 10 new members joined the EU, their people would have the same rights as any other EU citizens to visit Britain and seek work, without having to apply for a work permit.

Germany, with its huge common border with Poland, was never expected to be so open, but it came as a shock to the British Government when 13 out of 15 EU governments, including even Sweden, put up restrictions of varying degrees of severity. Only Ireland has joined the UK in an open-door policy. After 150 years of sending their young overseas to find work, the Irish discovered to their own surprise in the last decade that where they had once had a population surplus they now had a shortage. They want to attract between 33,000 and 46,000 workers from the 10 new EU members. One folk band in Prague sings only Irish songs, many of which deal with the pain of separation as people go overseas in search of a better life.

Meanwhile in Britain, the Government has calculated that the economy needs an injection of about 13,000 immigrant workers, but concedes that a much larger influx could put strains on the job market. In Burnley last week, Michael Howard, the Tory leader, warned that there could be a "tragedy" in the offing because the Government has failed to deal with this issue in time. His speech bundled together migrant workers and asylum-seekers, and his message was amplified by headlines like the Daily Express's on Thursday: "Millions of Migrants to Flood In - and there's nothing we can do to stop them."

This has caused Blair and other cabinet ministers to wonder if they have been manoeuvred into an argument which they cannot win. The Home Secretary David Blunkett's view is that Howard's own record on immigration and asylum is so awful that any argument he puts up can easily be knocked down. Gerald Kaufman, who has more experience in this field than almost any other Labour MP, believes that though immigration is highly emotive, it does not greatly affect the way people vote. If it did, the Conservatives would have had had more success in 2001. But the prevailing feeling in government is that they must be seen to do something to quieten public fears.

Part of the reason why the issue is so emotive is that it has been conflated with the separate question of asylum-seekers, which will also be in the news next week with the publication of the latest asylum statistics. Ministers and their Conservative opponents agree that there has been a problem for years with "bogus" asylum-seekers.

The difference between them is that Labour claims that the Government is getting the problem under control, whereas the Tories say that only they would be tough enough to deal with it.

Asylum-seekers and East European economic migrants have two things in common: they come from abroad, and they are nearly all under 35. There the similarity ends. Most asylum-seekers are desperately poor by western standards. They come from different cultural and religious backgrounds. Many do not speak English. They have fled from some of the poorest and most violent places on the planet: Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka. They do not work while they are waiting for their applications to be processed because it is illegal, and, contrary to the impression given by the tabloids, their chances of being allowed to stay are slim.

During 2002, the authorities gave 28,400 applicants permission to stay, and rejected more than 55,000 applications. At one time, it was almost automatic that a Kosovan Albanian could obtain permission to stay in Britain, but in two years, some 20,000 were told that their applications had now been rejected. The Government is now negotiating to send back huge numbers of Afghans and Sri Lankans.

Asylum-seekers first surfaced as an issue in 1991, when the number of applications trebled in a single year to 45,000. The immigration service, based in Croydon, was so clogged up that it soon had a backlog of 60,000 cases. The numbers of applicants took another upward leap to more than 91,000 in 1999, and rose until October 2002 when there were 8,770 in one month.

In January 2003, Blair startled the House of Commons by promising to halve the number of asylum applications by the following September. For a variety of reasons, including the closure of the refugee camp at Sangatte, the figure did indeed go below 4,500 a month, and Thursday's announcement will probably show another fall.

Even so, the laws covering asylum-seekers are about to become harsher, with jail sentences for applicants who delay proceedings by destroying their documents - but still not harsh enough for Howard. He proposed last week that no one should be allowed to claim political asylum in Britain. All applications, he said, should be handled in reception centres abroad. It is also still Conservative policy that any applicants who manage to slip in would be immediately removed to an unspecified island until their cases have been dealt with.

It is not only on the hard right that Third World immigration is seen as a dilemma. The current edition of Prospect, which straddles the party divide, includes a long essay by its editor David Goodhart, which poses the question that Britain may already be "too diverse". He argues: "If welfare states demand that we pay into a common fund on which we can all draw at times of need, it is important that we feel that most people have made the same effort to be self-supporting and will not take advantage. We need to be reassured that strangers, especially those from other countries, have the same idea of reciprocity."

The political left will argue about whether Goodhart has a point or whether - as the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips has suggested - his article simply proves that "nice people do racism too."

Whatever the outcome, that is irrelevant to the issue of whether people from the 10 "accession" countries of the EU should be allowed free entry into the UK or whether, as Howard demands, they should have to apply for work permits. The new EU members are not poor by world standards. Slovenia is wealthier than Greece or Portugal, and will quickly become a net contributor to EU funds. The poorest new arrival is Latvia, whose economic output per capita is about a third of the UK's, but even there, more than a quarter of the population own cars and mobile phones, and its economy has been growing at a rate far above the EU average.

The number of asylum-seekers from these countries is negligible, apart from a well known exception: several thousand Romany gypsies who arrived in the UK to escape racial harassment. As asylum applicants, they received benefits. It may become harder for the gypsies to continue to continue claiming refugee status in Britain when their countries of origins are full members of the EU, but their presence appears to have misled some tabloid headline writers into thinking that all East European migrants are gypsies, or draw benefits.

Blunkett is expected to announce tomorrow changes to the benefits system, so that migrant workers from East Europe will, for a long period, be ineligible to claim. Most of the new arrivals will be young, fit, and keen to speak English, and if government policy works effectively, they will contribute to the welfare state by paying tax, taking little from it in return. By no rational argument could they be called a threat to the welfare state, but in a political culture which can barely distinguish between legitimate migrant workers, illegal immigrants, asylum-seekers and welfare recipients, a rational argument will not be easy to sustain. That is why nerves in the Cabinet are on edge.