9 October 2012

Call to rewrite EU free movement rules wins Tory support

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Britain should rewrite the rules of the European Union to introduce limits on immigration from central and East European member states, modernising Conservative MPs Gavin Barwell and Kris Hopkins said at the Demos and British Future Dragons’ Den fringe meeting on immigration and integration policies at the Conservative conference in Birmingham.

Introducing 15 hours of social action as part of the citizenship test, proposed by Max Wind-Cowie of Demos, and suspending the free movement of labour across the whole of the EU, proposed by Daily Express political editor Patrick O’Flynn, were the two proposals which won the support of the Dragons panel and the fringe audience. The Telegraph’s Ed West proposed to give preference to persecuted Christians in the asylum system and writer and broadcaster Ruth Porter to use the price mechanism to issue visas. Both were rejected by both the Dragons and the fringe audience.

Immigration and integration Conservative party conference

Rewriting the EU Treaties to restrict free movement with the A8 member states who joined in 2004 strikingly swept up a full house of all five Dragons, with Demos director David Goodhart, Jenni Russell and Lord Popat joining Barwell and Hopkins in endorsing the proposal. The pitch was put by Daily Express political editor Patrick O’Flynn, who told the meeting that he thought his pitch would necessarily involve “taking on the whole of the political establishment” so that it had come “as quite a surprise to find myself a day on from the prime minister himself who seems to be giving this serious consideration,” following Home Secretary Theresa May opening up debate about EU free movement in a newspaper interview at the weekend.

“I don’t say we need to suspend free movement with Germany or France. But I do believe that we need to suspend free movement with the A8 countries,” said O’Flynn, calling for “the suspension of free movement with countries with low wage structures and where not a lot of people from Britain go in the opposite direction.” He emphasised that this was not a challenge to the strong work ethic and economic contribution of migrants from EU states. His concern was that the ability to deal with welfare dependency or address youth unemployment was significantly hampered by competition with jobs from better-qualified candidates from central and Eastern Europe.

The proposal was supported, with some reservations, by the two Conservative MPs and the Conservative peer on the panel. “My instinct was to support this, though I do basically believe in free markets. What worries me is that we made a deal and we would be going back on the deal. But I do think there is a case for looking at this as a temporary measure. A mistake was made in 2004 because these countries were admitted without accession controls,” Gavin Barwell told the meeting. “The bit that would concern me would be the language that we would use to communicate this,” said Kris Hopkins, asking O’Flynn whether newspapers like the Express could celebrate such a policy shift in a way which would be popular across communities, including with voters from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Guardian columnist Jenni Russell said she had changed her mind to support this change because of her concern about youth unemployment and the pressure on wages from East European immigration, and David Goodhart of Demos said that he believed governments could seek to change the free movement rules and not regard them as unalterable.

But British Future director Sunder Katwala was very sceptical that the proposal to restrict free movement while remaining within the EU was workable, pointing out that it would require a Treaty change to be supported by all EU members, including those who would be excluded from free movement. Katwala suggested that the only way to reintroduce immigration controls with Poland and the Czech Republic would be for Britain to leave the European Union. O’Flynn, pitching the proposal, said that he was also in favour of leaving the EU, but noted that support for revising the free movement rules was now winning growing support from those who would not want to go that far.

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