Hoping for a British defeat at the borders of insanity

News From Elsewhere Hugh O'Shaughnessy at passport control
Click to follow
The Independent Online
I USED to like flying in and out of London City Airport. It lies not too far from my house and is in the shadow of this newspaper's office in Docklands. It's quiet and not much used, its principal traffic being business trips to Paris or Brussels. I once wrote to the airport manager and complimented him on how easy parking was and how he sensibly didn't make you turn up hours before your plane was due to depart.

But I had a nasty experience there recently. It has been my practice for some time to politely demur when British immigration officials unlawfully seek to examine my passport when I arrive back from another part of the European Union. They are, after all, seeking to exercise powers they do not have under the Treaty of Rome - which establishes there shall be free movement among the states of our Union. And the Treaty of Rome is as firm a part of the British legal panorama as the Lord Chancellor's woolsack. Perhaps even firmer.

I arrived at London City Airport on one of the few flights to use the runway that evening. The immigration officers had seen me come off this solitary flight from Belgium and had reluctantly allowed me through without examining my passport. "You're trying to have us on, aren't you, sir," said one.

They immediately exacted their revenge. As if by magic, their colleagues - the customs officers - decided to carry out a 45-minute examination of the boring pile of documents I was bringing back from a conference I had just attended in Japan.

The friend who had been waiting for me was persuaded to wait no more because, he was told by officials, I was drunk. That was a strange charge. I had not been able to make the one small glass of Burgundy consumed shortly after take-off from Tokyo 14 hours previously sustain a happy alcoholic haze on a journey halfway round the world. At all events I had to pay an unnecessary taxi fare home.

The end of the summer holiday season is a good time to reflect on the amount of time and money wasted on immigration controls. Patient, reasonably well-paid and usually polite men and women stand day and night at neat desks at Heathrow airport or on the quayside at Portsmouth. Maybe they do a valuable job keeping out criminals and illicit economic refugees. But ,shamefully, they also ensure that Her Majesty's Government breaches the provisions of the Treaty of Rome and the Maastricht Treaty. These treaties prescribe free movement of people within the Union of which we all, even Tony Benn and Bill Cash, are citizens.

As things stand, immigration officers and their colleagues in the Customs and Excise are there to ensure that the interests of European manufacturers and traders take precedence over the rights of the ordinary citizen. Goods whiz across frontiers whereas European men and women are sieved and sifted unmercifully.

Container-loads of widgets from West Bromwich are shot over to their destinations in the Ruhr and consignments of Dutch cheese bowl merrily along to Britain's supermarkets. But the passage of mere mortals continues to be fraught with complication and regulation.

Britain's immigration practice is not just regrettable, not just another manifestation of how the anti-European right-wing of the Conservative Party has got their man Michael Howard at the Home Office to block promiscuous and possibly dangerous contact with foreigners. It is clearly plumb in contravention of European law. Article 8a of the Treaty of Rome - which, under the Single European Act introduced during Margaret Thatcher's premiership, is part of British law - says simply "Every citizen of the Union shall have the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the member States ..." There is no reference to passports contained in Article 8a.

How does the maintenance of expensive and illegal controls on circulation within the European Union, sometimes, as at London City Airport, applied with outstanding bloody-mindedness, square with the Government's commitment to a blitz on red tape? And where is the consistency, as practices vary among airports and, I daresay, among different shifts of officers on duty? Returning to Gatwick from Madrid on Wednesday, I was waved through without having to show any passport. A polite and efficient woman officer merely handed me a written statement that purported to justify the present controls.

Nor are we in line with European practice. In 1985 in the face of British obstructionism on the question of frontiers, member governments of the Union got together at the Luxembourg village of Schengen to make a bonfire of their common border controls. The Schengen agreement they signed has developed to a point where today the use of passports has been all but abolished from the Baltic Sea to Cape Trafalgar. Meanwhile, in Britain we have been smothered by the direst of warnings about the misfortunes that would overcome our island race if Britain were to follow the Schengen agreement.

Oblivious of the fact that British people earn less than the average citizen of the Union and that welfare payments are lower than some other countries, the Home Office tries to give the impression that if we entered the Schengen, desperate immigrants from outside Europe would pass through France and Germany and stream into Dover. Once there, they would snatch steady jobs from honest British plumbers and joiners from Folkestone to Falkirk.

And what is more, murmur the doomsayers, the continental computers that the Schengen countries use to trace criminals and terrorists don't work, and in France Jacques Chirac has already got cold feet. With such ridiculous "insinuendo" do the British authorities try to camouflage the expensive illegality which constitutes the present set of restrictions on our freedom and that of our fellow citizens of the Union.

The ultimate folly is that it is not a cause the British can even win. If Britain is to remain a strong European power - as John Major has pledged it will - Whitehall must eventually follow its European partners and allow the free movement of its citizens. The spirit that created the Schengen agreement will win in the end.

It is now time for a test case to be brought in this country. This would allow the courts to demonstrate publicly that Britain's present immigration regulations breach its legal obligations.

Come to think of it, if some public-spirited organisation funded such a case, I wouldn't mind giving my ha'porth of evidence. The memory of that awkward evening at London City Airport is still fresh in my mind. And the courts just might tell the Government to reimburse me for that unnecessary taxi fare.

Meanwhile, European citizens could do worse than politely refuse to show passports. What are the immigration authorities going to do? Lock us all up?

Alan Watkins returns next week.