NICK CLEGG sparked anger yesterday by claiming there will not be another mass influx of migrants to the UK when visa restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians are lifted in six weeks.
The Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister refused to estimate the number of people who will head to Britain under the new European Union freedom-of-movement rules from January 1.
He said the situation was not the same as a decade ago in a previous shake-up of border controls when hundreds of thousands from Poland and other new EU nations in Eastern Europe came to Britain.
Mr Clegg said: “I understand the concerns, we’re very vigilant about this. We will not make any wild predictions about what’s going to happen but it is quite different, the circumstances are quite different to last time.” Annual net immigration soared to around 250,000 a year after eight former Eastern bloc countries joined the EU in 2004.
Mr Clegg argued that the previous Labour government had blundered by immediately dropping visa restrictions, rather than phasing them out like most other EU nations.
He said: “We are lifting [the restrictions] at the same time as all other countries in the European Union.”
Last week, former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw admitted the previous Government made a “spectacular mistake”. At the time, the Home Office estimated that between 5,000 and 13,000 Eastern Europeans would come to Britain.
Mr Clegg said: “The Labour Government lifted the restrictions in a way that Jack Straw and others now say is a mistake and they did it with only Sweden and Ireland. In other words, the only countries that a number of the citizens from central and Eastern Europe could go to were Britain and a couple of others. So it is different this time.”
He believed migrants would go elsewhere. “There are many other countries, particularly in the south of Europe, where there are already large settled Romanian communities.”
Mr Clegg said: “Hundreds of thousands of British people benefit by going to live and work abroad elsewhere in the EU. This is a two-way thing.”
His arguments were rejected by supporters of the Daily Express’s crusade to keep the existing controls.
Tory MP Philip Hollobone said: “I do hope he is right but I fear he is not. The big worry is that we are going to see yet another big rise with which we are simply not able to cope.”
MigrationWatch has estimated that between 30,000 and 70,000 citizens from Bulgaria and Romania will come annually in the next five years. Last week, official figures suggested many were already arriving on temporary visas. Mr Clegg said local authorities needed to do more to prevent possible conflicts with Roma migrants.
The issue made headlines when David Blunkett, another former Labour Home Secretary, warned of “riots” in his Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough constituency. Mr Clegg, who also represents a Sheffield constituency, admitted there were tensions but argued that they were best tackled locally.
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