Bill Carmichael: We can’t move EU goalposts

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FOR the first time in my life I found myself agreeing with Nick Clegg this week – and it is not an entirely comfortable feeling.

The Deputy Prime Minister was talking about the expected influx of immigrants into the UK from Romania and Bulgaria in the New Year when he said “pulling up the drawbridge” by placing a cap on the number of EU migrants – an idea floated by senior Conservatives – was “illegal” and “unworkable”.

For once in his career the Lib Dem leader is absolutely right. We knew the rules of the EU club when we agreed to join. And one of those rules is the free movement of labour, allowing EU citizens to live and work in member states without the need for visas, residency or work permits.

Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Britons have taken advantage of this rule by working in Germany and France or retiring to Portugal and Spain.

It is a bit late to start moving the goalposts in the middle of the game – but that is exactly what Cameron and the Conservatives are trying to do. And I am afraid our European masters will not allow them to get away with it.

We have known for seven years this crisis was coming. Romania and Bulgaria became members of the EU in 2007, but temporary restrictions were imposed limiting the rights of movement of the citizens of those two countries.

Those restrictions come to an end on January 1, and 21 million Romanians and seven million Bulgarians will have the same rights to live and work – and claim benefits – in the UK as people who have lived here all their lives.

That’s what the EU rules say. If Turkey ever succeeds in joining the EU, then 74 million Turks will also have the right to come to the UK.

How many Romanians and Bulgarians will arrive after January 1? Nobody knows – not even the Government. Previous estimates about Poles proved a wild underestimate. The then Labour government guessed 13,000 a year. The true figure was more than a million.

Now, with less than two weeks to the deadline, the Conservatives are desperately trying to look tough on immigration. Why the sudden panic? Because their private polls show immigration is a hot button issue with voters.

Ukip is already poised to inflict serious damage on the Tories in May’s elections and another wave of immigration, putting further pressure on housing, schools and the NHS, will add to the problems of Cameron and co. Hence the rash of unworkable and illegal schemes to limit immigration which the bureaucrats in Brussels will simply brush aside.

If we really want to regain control over our borders there is only one way to do it – leave the EU and put immigration policy back in the hands of our elected and accountable representatives in Westminster.

In other words, if we don’t like the rules of the club, we should stop moaning about it and simply quit.

Gift of the grab

DONE all your Christmas shopping yet? Me neither!

Every year it is the same – a mad dash around the High Street on Christmas Eve trying to get everything before the shops close.

And every year I promise myself that next year I’ll be more organised – only to fall into the same panic-stricken trap 12 months later.

Meanwhile my serene other half wisely started buying presents back in August in order to spread the cost, and was done and dusted with her shopping over a week ago.

Whatever the state of your shopping plans – whether you are feeling increasingly frantic or quietly smug – I would like to wish all readers of this column a very merry Christmas and a prosperous and peaceful New Year.