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Tony Blair is not the pro-migration politician we need

For the last few months, Tony Blair has been gradually but unmistakeably reinserting himself into the front lines of British politics. Plenty of people pine for New Labour, but the core strain of Blair support these days flows from his willingness to be an unapologetic defender of the European Union and, in particular, free movement.

Until, that is, Blair’s anti-Brexit Institute for Global Change published a paper this week calling for – ahem – controls on immigration. But if this seems like a backflip for Blair, appearances are misleading: this new report fits perfectly with the dishonest and ultimately counterproductive approach to immigration politics the ex-PM has always taken.

What the Institute wants us to believe is that adequate controls on immigration from Europe are possible without leaving the EU. This is a line Nick Clegg has pushed as well, and it’s true that freedom of movement doesn’t deny EU members all their immigration policy tools. EU citizens can be deported if they do not have a ‘right to reside’. The government can restrict entry on grounds of ‘public policy’. It’s in principle possible to negotiate a beefed up ‘emergency brake’ to limit immigration. These are the tools that Clegg and Blair say the government should be using rather than resorting to a chaotic departure from the EU.

In reality, though, they are much more limited than they sound. Take deportations. The right to reside is held not only by EU citizens with a job, but also jobseekers with a ‘genuine chance’ of finding one, as well as their family members. The Home Office could decide to deport people who don’t fit any of these categories, but those decisions couldn’t be enforced until after a full appeals process. And anyone deported under these laws could simply come back. Free movement rules do not allow entry bans on deported EU citizens.

In fact, the government isn’t allowed to stamp passports, ask questions about employment, or take any systematic steps to restrict entry: all citizens of EU countries, even those without a right to reside, have the right to enter. The clause that allows public policy restrictions on entry is essentially limited to immediate threats to public safety, and explicitly rules out economic rationales for turning a migrant away. The only exception would be an ‘emergency brake’ allowing temporary restrictions. But even if the government could negotiate an emergency brake, it would never be able to use it. Britain faces nothing the EU will recognise as an emergency: according to the OECD, the UK has less immigration relative to its size than Austria,  Germany, Ireland, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, and even Belgium – the country Clegg and Blair like to cite as an exemplar of their new, tougher approach to EU migration.

The reality is that all Britain can really do about EU migration is increase deportations, at great administrative and financial cost, with no prospect of having a sustained effect on the number or type of EU citizens in the country. Taking harsh, tough-seeming measures that have no significant impact on the actual level of immigration to the UK may not seem like much of a solution to our political problems, real and imagined, with free movement. But it’s a trademark Blairite move faced with a tricky migration debate.

Since 2010 New Labour migration policy has been remembered principally for the decision, in 2004, to welcome unrestricted free movement from the ten new EU member states. But during his prime ministership, Blair put a lot of effort into appearing tough on immigration – in particular, asylum seekers from outside the EU. British border officials were deployed to Prague’s international airport (the Czech Republic was not then an EU state) to turn away Roma passengers from flights to the UK, since they were thought likely to claim asylum. In February 2003 Blair appeared on Newsnight and, apparently without consulting his Home Secretary, promised to halve the number of asylum seeker arrivals. Before the 2005 election, the Home Office stopped granting permanent asylum to Tamils fleeing the three decade Sri Lankan Civil War, and Blair won approving reviews from the Sun after announcing a new crackdown on non-English-speaking migrants. In 2006 the Scottish government criticised the increasing use of dawn raids to deport asylum claimants; by 2009, the home affairs select committee had joined in, issuing a report condemning the practice of holding children in immigration detention centres.

Asylum arrivals in this period were typically around 5% of the overall immigration inflow, and less than a third even at their 2002 peak. There was never any prospect that these ‘tough on immigration’ measures would materially change the effects of migration on the UK. They were designed to play the same role that increased deportations and the emergency brake are playing now: sops to mollify anti-immigration sentiment without breaking EU rules or cutting down on economically beneficial migration.

For a while, this can be a good trick. Labour made it as far as 2010 without its pro-EU migration stance causing serious problems. But since then its limited shelf life has been exposed. The two-step of preaching restrictionism while practising free movement comes at enormous cost to the people who are made examples of – asylum seekers, or homeless EU citizens, to name a few. And it only exacerbates, or at best defers, the real problem. Agreeing that we need to be tough on immigration only builds expectations and resentment when – by design! – nothing significant changes. Sooner or later, politicians who support the EU and free movement will have to do what they’ve so far shrunk from, and honestly defend immigration without concessions to xenophobia. Tony Blair’s tricks helped create this mess. They won’t get us out of it.

In writing this piece I learned a lot from the consistently informative Twitter feed of Simon Cox, who you should follow if you’re interested in the law and practice of Brexit and EU migration.