The UK Independence Party is preparing to exploit fears over mass immigration from Romania and Bulgaria by putting the issue at the heart of its campaign strategy over the next year.
David Cameron today refused to speculate over how many people from those countries could head to Britain in search of work when restrictions on their movement of travel within the European Union are lifted in January 2014.
But Ukip, which is surging in the polls, is showing no such qualms, claiming the move could lead to an influx of 350,000 to 400,000 Romanians or Bulgarians into this country, and claims it will impact on crime rates.
It said the issue would play a “significant and major” part in its local election campaign in May and would be bound to feature in contests for the European Parliament in 2014.
The move will heighten fears in Conservative ranks that the party could further erode its support among traditional Tory voters. Conservative MPs will tomorrow call for the Government to impose emergency new restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians because of the impact on jobs and services.
Ukip is seeking to link its raison d’etre – arguing for withdrawal from the EU – with immigration, which surveys show is among voters’ biggest concerns. Its private polling suggests that any party that successfully tied the two issues could potentially appeal to 80 per cent of the electorate.
A Ukip spokesman said: “We will be able, quite legitimately, to tie the Government’s inaction vis a vis the European Union and a local impact on people’s towns and villages.”
He said free movement between Britain, Romania and Bulgaria was “going to have an impact on schools, housing, roads, facilities, health care and – I hate to say it – crime”.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has admitted the last government blundered by not imposing transitional controls on people from the eight nations, including Poland, which joined the EU in 2004. Hundreds of thousands ended up coming to Britain rather than the 13,000 originally forecast.
One Tory right-winger, Philip Hollobone, has estimated the Romanian and Bulgarian population in Britain could increase by 270,000 following next year’s move.
Another, Stewart Jackson, will on Wednesday present a Commons Bill calling for fresh limits on Romanian and Bulgarians coming to the UK. He said: “We don’t want to make the same mistake as we did in 2004 which was to import a very large number of low-wage, low-skill workers and embed welfare dependency in our indigenous workforce.”
Mr Cameron today insisted it was impossible to predict the effect of lifting restrictions, but said predictions of hundreds of thousands were not “reasonable”. He backed Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, who has refused to release Whitehall projections of the impact.
Migration specialists today suggested Romanians were more likely to go Italy, Spain and France, with which they shared linguistic and cultural links than Britain.
They also pointed out that the major western European economies are lifting transitional controls at the same time, unlike in 2004 when Britain was the only large economy to adopt an “open doors” approach to Poland and other new EU member states.
Sarah Mulley, of the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank, said: “The public are concerned about the migration aspects of the European Union. The pro-European movement needs to come up with a positive case for the free movement of people as part of the European project.”
Scott Blinder, acting director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, said: “If you compare what is going to happen next year with what happened in 2004, most of what we know suggests it will be a smaller impact, smaller scale event.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies