Michael Howard, the Tory leader, will attempt to turn up the heat on the Government on immigration today by demanding that Britain prevents citizens of the new EU member states from working in the country for at least two years.
Mr Howard, seeking to make political capital out of Labour's discomfort on the issue, will accuse the Government of complacency over the implications of the EU's expansion in May. This comes as the Government sought to play down fears that Britain would be flooded by migrants seeking work in more prosperous parts of the EU.
During a high-profile visit to Burnley, the scene of race riots in 2001, Mr Howard will demand that Britain copy the "transitional arrangements" adopted by Germany and France to prevent citizens from new EU members from working there. Mr Howard will say: "The Conservative Party has always supported the enlargement of the EU to take in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. We continue to do so."
But he will continue: "Almost every other country in the EU has quite rightly taken the precaution of putting in place transitional arrangements to deal with immigration from the accession countries. It is still not too late for the British Government to put in place transitional arrangements as well. If we were in government, we would do so. The Government has approached this problem in typical fashion. First it failed to address it, then it ignored it, now it is claiming to face up to it."
Yesterday, the President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, called on Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac to show leadership by taking a "generous" approach to migration from the new EU states. Mr Cox said: "We know from the 1990s, a lot of people left countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in the first flush of freedom after the collapse of communism and two-thirds went back home again. That was the experience with Spain and Portugal when we enlarged the Union in the 1980s. France and others feared floods of migrants coming north. It didn't happen and the rules that they put in place fell into disuse."
Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, dismissed as "nonsense" claims that the expansion of the European Union would trigger a flood of migrants to Britain. She said: "I expect some growth, because clearly once these countries join the EU we would hope that more of them will be contributing to the success of our businesses and the success of our economy. But I think the talk of huge numbers and a flood of people is nonsense, and we will see it to be nonsense in a few years' time."
Ms Hewitt confirmed that a crackdown on welfare payments would be announced by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, on Monday, but reiterated that Britain would not join other EU states in shutting the door to economic migrants from such countries as Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania.
She told BBC Radio 4: "Where people want to come to work in Britain and help fill vacancies that otherwise mightn't be filled, we should all welcome that. What we don't welcome is people coming simply with an eye on exploiting our benefit system. As the Prime Minister made very clear, we were looking at how best to tackle that."
Keith Vaz, the former Europe Minister, reflected some discomfort among Labour MPs over the Government's plans for tighter benefit rules. He described the move as a "grave mistake [which] dances to the wrong agenda" because it meant some EU nationals being treated worse than others.
But critics of expansion are likely to seize on an EU-commissioned report that suggests almost four million East Europeans could head west over the next 25 years. The study, by DIW, a German think-tank, warns that West European governments will do little to hold back a tide of migrants only as long as labour restrictions last. DIW wrote: "Postponing immigration by the application of transition arrangements for up to seven years will only reduce the long term potential for migration into the [existing] EU by a few thousand. The reason is that the gap between per-head income won't fundamentally narrow and therefore the incentive for migrating will persist."
The newcomer states yesterday hit back at claims that their entry will create a wave of so-called "benefits shoppers" and migrant workers.
Slovakia's European Commission representative, Jan Figel, who dismissed concerns that Slovaks were a threat to the EU's labour markets, said: "Protectionist measures are not driven chiefly by economic motives, because it is evident that Western economies need reinvigoration. That cannot be achieved by isolation. These measures are mainly supported by labour unions, some political parties, and the public more in reaction to negative anticipation and fear of enlargement."
Petra Zajdová, a spokeswoman for Romea, a Czech-based Roma organisation, said it was wrong for Britain to discriminate against new EU members when handing out benefits.
She said: "If it is going to be this way, then I really do not see the unity of Europe that is trying to be attempted. For sure, this is not a solution that should be implemented at all. The outcome of this will be a split between 'less valuable' and 'more valuable' European countries."
Jana Kasalova, who heads the EU integration department at the Czech Education Ministry, said thatcitizens of neighbouring EU states will also be able to come to the Czech Republic, where university education is free. The Czech daily, Pravo, said: "A simple fear of all that is foreign is making politicians in some EU countries show their voters that they are defending their national interests against an influx of work-hungry foreigners from the east."
HOW THE 10 NEW MEMBERS WILL AFFECT BRITAIN
CYPRUS (Area: 9,000 sq km, Population: 800 000)
There is a large and established Cypriot community in Britain as well as long-standing ties with this country. However, in practice, EU expansion is unlikely to make any difference to the pattern of Cypriots working in Britain and then returning home.
CZECH REPUBLIC (Area: 79,000 sq km, Population: 10.3 million)
Large numbers of Czechs head for Britain every year, including thousands of au pairs and students. An annual average of 2,000 Czechs, mainly Roma, have also claimed asylum in recent years. Because of its high standard of education, it could supply professionals for hi-tech industries.
ESTONIA (Area: 45,000 sq km, Population: 1.4 million)
The wealthiest of the Baltic states, its closest links are with Finland. Only a few dozen Estonians travel to work in Britain at present.
HUNGARY (Area: 93,000 sq km, Population: 10.2 million)
As one of the most prosperous new entrants, it might be expected to provide a substantial number of skilled migrants. But there are few historic links between Britain and Hungary, which tends to look towards Germany. Fewer than 700 work permits were issued to Hungarians in 2002.
LATVIA (Area: 65,000 sq km, Population: 2.4 million)
Latvia is the Baltic state with the highest number of ethnic Russians, most of whom are very poor. About 1,500 of its citizens come to Britain each year. Two-thirds of them take up seasonal work, including labouring and fruit picking. There are small Latvian communities in London and south Wales.
LITHUANIA (Area: 65,000 sq km, Population: 3.5 million)
Like Poland, with which it has historic ties, it provides large numbers of casual workers in the agricultural sector. In 2002, more than 2,100 Lithuanians came to Britain on the Government's seasonal work scheme. New migrants are likely to be drawn by the established Lithuanian communities in London, Manchester and Nottingham.
MALTA (Area: 316 sq km, Population: 400 000)
The only accession state to have English as one of its official languages, it has historic ties to Britain, being awarded the George Cross after the Second World War. But as such a small country, its arrival in the EU will have a negligible effect on British work patterns. Just 145 people from Malta were given work permits in 2002.
POLAND (Area 313,000 sq km, Population: 38.6 million)
Likely to provide the largest number of economic migrants, drawn by the Polish community established in Britain for more than half a century. The biggest concentration of Poles is in west London. Polish migrants have traditionally worked in construction and agriculture, although there are also increasing numbers in domestic work.
SLOVAKIA (Area: 49 000 sq km, Population: 5.4 million)
The less prosperous nation to emerge from the split of Czechoslovakia, the spectre of impoverished Roma heading for Britain has been raised by some newspapers. Apart from the 3,000 Slovakian au pairs employed each year, there is little sign that a flood of economic migrants could be on the way. Just over 1,000 Slovakians came to work in this country in 2002, nearly all of them undertaking casual work.
SLOVENIA (Area: 20,000 sq km, Population: 2 million)
A small wealthy state, the first to break away from Yugoslavia, it has no long-standing links with Britain. Just 65 work permits were issued to Slovenians in 2002.