Let’s be under no illusion: Cameron is running scared. He has finally realised that immigration is an issue which matters greatly to the British public, and the only way to appease a disaffected electorate is to steal a march on UKIP. Unfortunately, his plan to re-negotiate the free movement of EU nationals didn’t just fall at the first hurdle: Merkel ensured it didn’t even reach the starting line.
The political analysts on the Today programme opined that Cameron has some wriggle room on the subject. Well, Cameron is definitely wriggling, but where exactly is the latitude he needs so badly? The experts suggest he could insist on EU nationals proving they have a job guaranteed and accommodation arranged. Even if the EU were prepared to accept this dubious fudge on free movement, it is unlikely to prove effective. So what options may be open to him?
Scenario one has Cameron stating he has won the right to interpret EU rules on free movement of EU nationals. This would be akin to the “admission restrictions” on Romanian and Bulgarian nationals prior to January 2014. As I pointed out in an earlier article, no such measures were ever applied at the borders, making them pointless except as a vehicle for political PR. It is likely that, once again, this would be a cynical ploy to fool the public. It would have to be stage managed in precisely the same way as the Romania / Bulgaria deception where immigration officials were not allowed to question nationals from those countries. I doubt that this trick could be pulled off a second time
Scenario two is the wriggle room initiative that the Today experts advocate. With this he would refuse admission to those EU nationals who have no job or accommodation arranged. Superficially it is attractive to Cameron and the Eurosceptics in his party. If he could persuade the EU to relax the rules to allow it one can imagine Cameron wiping the sweat from his brow and exclaiming “Phew,that was close.” I suspect that he – and his naïve advisers- would grasp that straw as would drowning men but would find it insubstantial. This government is notorious for quick solutions that fade and die before they flower and this particular solution would prove no different – and for solid reasons.
Prior to the accession of the Eastern European countries numerous untold numbers of their nationals – primarily from Poland– would arrive at the UK’s borders. They were, ostensibly, seeking entry as visitors, although in truth the majority were seeking employment. They were questioned by immigration officers and if they were unable to meet the criteria of genuine visitors they were refused leave to enter the UK. There was no right of appeal. Non EU visitors to the UK still have to satisfy border officials that they have sufficient funds, are genuine visitors who intend leaving the UK at the end of their stated period of visiting. So what’s the problem? A big one I fear.
If we try to reinstate the procedures as used for visitors we are up against the legality principle: EU citizens are not subject to examination. Okay, for the sake of argument let’s accept that Cameron has managed to obtain what would be a major concession insofar as border staff are able to question EU nationals. Do the problems go away? Far from it .Past experience shows that passengers are not stupid. Any EU citizen wishing to gain admission to the UK would have constructed a reasonable account of their travel. The more astute would have arranged for someone in the UK to vouch for their putative employment and accommodation. Proving that to be pure fabrication would, in the majority of cases, be difficult if not impossible. If border officials decided they would not allow admission, it is inconceivable that there would be no right of appeal. Most of those turned away would appeal an unfavourable decision leading to a morass of legal disputes. One can imagine the feeding frenzy as lawyers sharpen their litigation pencils and add a few noughts to the damages claimed by their much abused clients.
So, I suspect that, as usual, Cameron has been asking the wrong questions of the wrong people. Most damning is his inability to grasp the simple truth, evident to many of his own MPs and the general public, that just so long as we remain a part of the EU we cannot control our own borders. He can tinker, wriggle as much as wishes, but the inescapable truth is staring him full in the face, along with Merkel’s intractable features.
Photo by The Prime Minister’s Office