Tony Blair: ‘Get tough on immigration to stay in EU’
The former PM defends open-door policy but says circumstances have changed
Tony Blair has called for tough new immigration rules to keep the UK in the EU - while defending his own government's open-door policy against accusations that it led to the Brexit vote.
In what The Sunday Times described as “an explosive intervention that will electrify the Brexit debate”, the former prime minister argued that by bringing in tougher immigration controls it would be possible to take back control of Britain’s borders without leaving the EU.
The recommendations come from a report released by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which calls on the government to force EU migrants coming to the UK to register on arrival, so their numbers can be recorded. Those who failed to do so would be prohibited from renting a home, opening a bank account or claiming benefits.
The report also recommends restricting access to free healthcare for unemployed migrants and letting universities and businesses discriminate in favour of British citizens.
Blair also proposes seeking an ‘emergency brake’ to implement temporary controls on migration when services are stretched – a toughened version of the deal secured by David Cameron with the EU ahead of the referendum.
Blair’s intervention “appears designed to provoke a fundamental shift in the Brexit debate and solve the seemingly intractable trade-off between the economy and immigration”, says The Independent.
It will make “uncomfortable reading” for Theresa May, “since it makes clear she has not enforced existing rules that already permit the removal of EU migrants if they do not find work after three months in the UK”, says Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times.
Fear of unchecked immigration is thought to have been a key factor behind last year’s surprise vote to leave the EU and “many Brexit supporters blame Blair’s government for a big influx of EU migrants from 2004”, says Reuters.
Unlike France and Germany, which did not give migrants from the ten eastern European countries which joined the EU in May 2004 full access to their labour market until 2011, Blair's government did not insist on any transitional controls.
This led Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon to accuse Blair of a belated “epiphany” on the issue of immigration.
However, the former Labour leader defended his government’s record, arguing that the open borders he presided over as prime minister were “right for the time” but no longer appropriate in the post-Brexit political climate.
Blair said the concerns of Leave voters about pressure on services, downward pressure on wages and the cultural integration of migrants “cannot be ignored” - but added that “paradoxically, we have to respect the referendum vote to change it”.
His views were echoed by former Labour cabinet minister Lord Adonis, who said the decision of the British people to leave the EU could be reversed next year if France and Germany agree that the UK can take control over immigration while staying in the EU single market.
Writing in The Observer, Adonis said Angela Merkel, who looks set to be re-elected as German chancellor later this month, and French President Emmanuel Macron could make such an offer if they believed it would keep the UK in the EU.
He pointed to a new directive from the French president backing a crackdown on using migrants to undercut the wages of domestic workers as evidence of the changing mood within the EU on the meaning of free movement.
The government has pledged to end free movement of people with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Last week, draft plans leaked to The Guardian suggested the government was considering measures to restrict immigration for all but the highest-skilled EU workers, “plans some companies called alarming”, says Reuters.