- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

LONDON — Britain and Ireland, both already hit by tides of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from eight former communist countries who joined the European Union two years ago, yesterday announced restrictions aimed at stemming a similar influx when Bulgaria and Romania become members of the European Union in January.

In a written statement to Parliament, Home Secretary John Reid said the only unskilled laborers to be allowed into Britain initially from the two new EU countries would be in agricultural and food-processing industries.

The controls will be reviewed annually.

Officials in Ireland said Bulgarian and Romanian workers would be barred from open access to Irish labor markets for at least two years.

Britain and Ireland, unlike most of the rest of the European Union, offered unfettered access to workers from the new members who joined the European Union’s intake in 2004 — and then could only watch as their official expectations of the numbers turned out to be wildly underestimated.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government confidently predicted about 13,000 migrant workers would land here each year.

Instead, some 600,000 immigrants arrived by early this year — an unexpected influx that Mr. Reid said had helped trigger overcrowding in housing and put pressure on the nation’s health service and its schools.

The Republic of Ireland had expected some 10,000 migrants from the Eastern European countries admitted to the European Union in 2004. What the small but thriving nation of 4.2 million citizens has taken in since then is a flood of some 200,000 immigrants, mainly Poles.

Both London and Dublin have come under heavy political demands that they not permit such an unrestricted flow of workers to occur again.

“Over the years,” Mr. Reid said in his statement to Parliament, “Europe has prospered by letting people move and trade freely.”

But, he added, “as the EU expands, this poses new challenges, which have to be managed properly.”

“Here, as elsewhere, managed migration is the right approach.”

When Bulgaria and Romania officially join the European Union in January, citizens from the two countries will be allowed, under EU rules, to travel freely to Britain. But what their migrants will face is a quota system on permits to work — probably about 20,000 a year, and these restricted to the agriculture and food-processing sectors.

These unskilled workers will be allowed to work for only six months at a time and will be barred from receiving any public benefits.

Meanwhile, in addition to immigrants who enter Britain legally, there are major concerns that an open-door policy — or even a partially open door — will lead to a massive increase in the huge problem of illegal aliens.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government concedes that it has no idea how many “illegals” are already here.

The issue of immigration, legal or otherwise, is a political hot potato in Britain, where claims that migrants are taking jobs from native Britons are on the rise, and complaints grow daily about the pressure they are putting on schools, hospitals, social services, public transportation and other parts of the nation’s infrastructure.

Mr. Reid issued a stark warning to illegal workers and the “black market” operations that use them: “Employing illegal workers undercuts legitimate business and leads to exploitation. It will not be tolerated.”

The home secretary announced a range of penalties, including fines of up to $9,500 for businesses who employ workers illegally, among measures aimed at preventing a possible flood of new migrants after the arrival of Bulgaria and Romania push the EU’s membership from 25 to 27.

The British government has not officially estimated how many migrants it expects from the new countries, although Meglena Kuneva, Bulgaria’s minister for EU integration, told the British Broadcasting Corp. she predicted about 36,000 workers from her country would want to move to Britain.

The Associated Press quoted Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu as describing the British move as “a bad decision in the long run because it cultivates [British] misgivings about the European Union.”

“Our government did everything it could to prevent this measure,” the prime minister said. “Now we have to focus our efforts to ensure that this transition period is as short as possible.”

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