Keith Vaz: Why David Blunkett should be bold enough to welcome new Europeans

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The Independent Online

The "family photograph" may have been taken only a few months ago in Athens, but it has already started to look dated. In the shadow of the Acropolis, the EU at 15 met the EU at 25 as prime ministers and foreign ministers bent over backwards to prove how equal they all were. Only one third of the countries represented there had any claim to be paying more than lip service to the notion that 1 May would see the people of the new member states being treated equally with the citizens of the existing members.

Since then three more have fallen by the way (Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands), imposing restrictions when they had promised none. We shall know tomorrow, via a statement by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, if Britain's U-turn will leave Ireland, the current holder of the presidency, as the only country prepared to give real meaning to the word "equal treatment".

Politicians and commentators from Vilnius to Bratislava have been more saddened than stunned at the way in which the UK has appeared to dance to tune of the right-wing agendas of the Daily Mail and Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, as it fumbled its way back from its clear position on the freedom of movement of labour. It is a surprise that the Mail has not suggested we should lock up our daughters in case of the predatory actions of Roger from Riga. That Mr Howard should jump on the bandwagon is not a surprise. The Tories cannot really talk seriously about Europe because it tears them apart. That is why they have to reach for the box marked race and immigration .It gives them headlines without having to stake out an intellectual case.

After all, only a few months ago they were calling for a referendum on the Nice Treaty which was their way of blocking enlargement.

The enlargement process owes its momentum to Britain. The enlargement accession negotiations began under the UK's presidency of the EU in 1998. In October 2000 in Warsaw, Tony Blair was the first head of government to call for the new member states to participate in the 2004 European Parliament elections as full members. And it was only in December 2002 that Jack Straw, as foreign secretary, wrote to the foreign ministers of the applicant countries confirming that the UK would open up its borders to free movement of workers from all new member states as at the date of accession.

Successive UK ministers have highlighted Britain's laudable position as the only big country to accept all as full EU citizens. It was a clear position which delighted our future EU partners. Our policy was different and better than the others. It confirmed the UK as the champion of enlargement, gave the Prime Minister huge moral and political authority and helped ensure that, when support was asked for over Iraq, countries like Poland backed the UK. A "New Europe" was emerging. British companies were warmly welcomed in the capital cities of applicant states. Since 1990 UK trade has grown nearly 10 times as fast with future member states as with the rest of the world.

It is a myth to believe that in 67 days' time millions of citizens from the new member states will head for Dover. A few cases of asylum seekers have been blown into major tabloid soap operas. This great influx was predicted when Portugal, Spain and Greece, were about to join. It did not materialise, and it will not now. Speak to any Pole or Czech currently in this country working or studying and they will tell you that their ambition is to get full-time work, not to go on benefits. The recent debate also ignores the fact that the new members will receive £26bn from the EU between 2004-2006 which will boost their economies with the consequent pull on their own domestic workforce not to seek work elsewhere.

The desire to work rather than seek benefits takes advantage of chronic skill shortages in Britain, and allows our eastern European partners to contribute to this economy and, through sending money to their country of origin, boost those economies as well. What the new members fear most is the brain drain from their countries to Western Europe.

Britain needs the goodwill of the new members if it is going to move Europe towards the Reform Agenda. That is why the commitment made to the applicants for freedom of movement of labour is so important. Writing in June 2003 Tony Blair said: "It is right and fair that the new member states should enjoy the same rights to work in the UK as existing EU citizens." These should be the opening words of David Blunkett's statement tomorrow. We should remember that it isn't just elephants, but countries and their citizens, especially the European ones, that have very long memories.

Keith Vaz MP was Minister for Europe 1999-2001