by John Dyer

Plumbers and policies

London has poured cold water on Bulgaria's mounting excitement over its entry into the EU next year.

While preaching the benefits of integration and the free movement of peoples, the government of prime minister Tony Blair last month announced

Unveiled by Home Secretary John Reid at the height of a xenophobic tabloid newspaper campaign that portrayed Sofia as hopelessly corrupt and crime-ridden, the new rules would severely restrict the right of Bulgarians (and Romanians) to work in Britain. Note that Bulgarians will still be able to live in the UK after 1 January.

As EU citizens, Westminster can't restrict their right to reside here. But many Brits fear a tide of Balkan immigrants arriving on their island. When the 10 Central and East European states joined the EU in 2004, the government predicted 15,000 workers would come to Britain.

They were wrong. Nearly half a million flooded in, giving birth to the image of the Polish plumber.

The plumber is a perfect symbol, because he can be interpreted in two ways. British industry views him as a profit killer. It's damn hard to have one's sink fixed at short notice in Britain; the more plumbers out there, the less firms will be able to charge for their services. Unions view the Pole as their kind of guy: a working stiff who deserves a job when there's a demand.

The new rules would allow farms and food processing plants to import fewer than 20,000 unskilled workers from Bulgaria and Romania. Other companies would have to prove they couldn't find Britons to fill posts before they hire a guy from Pleven or Bucharest.

Individuals caught dodging the law - that is, the plumber from Pleven - would be fined £1,000. Companies face penalties of up to £5,000.

The British public seems to have welcomed the new rules as a proper gesture on the part of the government. Citing the 7 July bombings, which of course have nothing to do with the employment status of soon-to-be EU citizens, Brits tend to think something has to be done about immigrants and their allegedly violent, criminal ways.

"As a result of our open door policy on immigration, Britain is fast becoming the capital of international organised crime," wrote blog columnist Trevor Kavanagh for The Sun, Britain's biggest selling tabloid, which features scantily clad beauties.

Kavanagh had one point right, however. The new rules are all bluster. EU laws say you can't bar EU citizens from opening businesses in member states. To collect a paycheck in Britain, the plumber from Pleven need only declare himself "self-employed" when his cheap flight arrives in Luton Airport.

Doctors and other highly skilled workers would also get a pass. The Guardian newspaper (which doesn't feature topless women) estimates that a third of the immigrants from the Central and Eastern European EU members arrived in the UK as self-employed workers. The paper speculates that 30,000 Bulgarians and Romanians will head to Britain in the same manner next year.

What's more, EU law allows members to limit workers from new states for only seven years after they join the union. After 2014, the rules will be void.

Anticipating the policy's failure, but seeking to join the anti-immigrant bandwagon, the Conservatives unveiled their own proposal. The Tories would allow foreign workers into Britain only if the government determines they would bring economic benefits to the country. The plan would take account of industry's needs and then set limits the Tories expect would curb immigration.

The catch? The rules would only apply to immigrants from non-EU countries.

Watch out, Ukrainian plumbers.


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