UK May Tighten Benefit Controls to Deter New EU Immigrants

Responding to pressure from right-wing press and the Conservative party, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair now says he will consider measures that would withhold benefits for migrants from EU accession countries when they join the Union in May. Previously supporting the free movement of Eastern Europeans across the EU, Blair found himself isolated when Sweden imposed immigration controls a week ago. Only Ireland now stands with the UK in allowing immediate and unrestricted movement of labor from Eastern Europe. In contrast, most large EU states, including Germany, have delayed opening their labor markets, some until 2011. EU accession countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic worry that these discriminatory controls will turn their populations into second-class European citizens. – YaleGlobal

UK May Tighten Benefit Controls to Deter New EU Immigrants

Patrick Wintour
Thursday, February 5, 2004

Britain is examining tighter benefit controls to prevent increased immigration from mainly eastern European countries joining the EU, the prime minister said yesterday. Responding to pressure from the rightwing press and the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, Mr Blair said the government was looking at the "potential risk" and might close off concessions if necessary.

Downing Street said it wanted to ensure no one from EU countries could immediately claim means-tested benefits. At present access to means-tested benefits such as housing benefit is available under the habitual residence test if someone is deemed resident for at least six months. This may be extended by the government to at least 18 months

Ministers from the Foreign Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office have been meeting to discuss measures that would withhold benefits from migrants from the 10 accession countries when they join the EU in May.

There is tension within the government between those who believe that asylum is the main political grievance in the country, and those who argue that the priority should be the economic cost to Britain of the lack of skilled immigrants.

Britain has imposed no transitional controls on the free movement of citizens from the accession countries of eastern Europe. But ministers were stung when the Social Democratic Swedish government decided a week ago to impose controls, leaving the UK increasingly isolated. Denmark said last year that migrants would be given six months to find a job before they were sent home.

Most of the larger states, including Germany, have delayed opening their labour markets, some until 2011. Britain and Ireland are the only members to allow immediate and unrestricted movement of labour from the accession countries.

Mr Howard, at prime minister's questions, said that almost every other EU government had imposed controls, and asked why Britain had not followed suit.

Mr Blair replied: "We will take whatever measures are necessary in order to make sure that the pull factor, which might draw people here, is closed off."

Mr Blair startled Tory MPs and angered some asylum groups by saying Mr Howard's concerns were justified. "It is important that we recognise that there is a potential risk from these accession countries of people coming in," he said.

"It's precisely for that reason now that we are looking at the concessions we gave, and if it is right that closing off those concessions is going to mean we deal with this problem, then we will do so."

Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania join the club on May 1, along with Cyprus and Malta, to which no limits apply.

The European commission is worried about the discriminatory language being used in the British media to describe a purported influx to the UK of Roma from Slovakia and elsewhere.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004