History of British Hypocrisy Over EU Expansion

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EU flag - Sputnik International, 1920, 14.02.2022
The British government agonised over how to stop the flood of asylum seekers from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in the run-up to their accession to the European Union, UK Cabinet papers from 1997-99 reveal. Their release to the National Archives in London coincides with yet another immigration crisis on British shores.
Barely had the New Labour administration under Tony Blair come into office in May 1997 when they faced a serious immigration crisis that cost half a billion pounds and created a significant foreign policy dilemma vis-a-vis the newly fangled democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, whom London, in the words of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, wanted “to anchor as quickly as possible into Europe".
In October 1997, Home Secretary Jack Straw urged Robin Cook to introduce a permanent visa regime on the Czech and Slovak Republics, citing unacceptable numbers of asylum seekers coming from those countries to the United Kingdom. While asylum seekers from other parts of the world risked their lives being smuggled into the UK under perilous conditions, East Europeans took advantage of visa-free entry to the UK to claim asylum and, as the British Home Office warned, abuse the social benefits system to the tune of £450 million a year.
© Photo : bridgesnotwalls.uk'Migrants Welcome Here' banner hanging over Westminster Bridge, London
'Migrants Welcome Here' banner hanging over Westminster Bridge, London - Sputnik International, 1920, 14.02.2022
'Migrants Welcome Here' banner hanging over Westminster Bridge, London
The Foreign Office rejected the request for the imposition of visas on Czechs and Slovaks, arguing that would run contrary to London’s EU enlargement policy, especially when the Czechs were already one foot in NATO. But the domestic problems caused by the influx of what Jack Straw called “unfounded asylum applicants” was, in his words, so huge that he pleaded for at least a temporary visa regime, introduced urgently.
Straw even offered to redeploy immigration officers from British ports of entry to British Embassies in Prague and Bratislava:

"…the position with Czech and Slovak nationals is so serious that the clear operational need is to make the switch of staff now".

Reacting to Foreign Office suggestions that there might not be enough space to accommodate extra visa officers at the embassies, Straw pointed to Canadian “know-how” of having a Portacabin [moveable container used for temporary accommodation of staff] ready with equipment that they moved around their embassies as the need arose.

Asylum Seeker Carousel

Diplomatic sensitivities were not confined to relations with the prospective EU member states. Many asylum seekers arrived in Britain via France, as they do now, and London had – and still has - difficulty agreeing with the French on how to deal with the situation. The Dublin Convention, an EU law setting out which country is responsible for looking at an individual's asylum application, stipulates that this is usually the country where the asylum seeker first arrives in the EU. However, the "frontline" EU countries were never happy about it.
A number of asylum seekers, particularly those who were detained on arrival, decided to withdraw their asylum applications and make a voluntary departure from the UK. But, wrote Jack Straw:

"At present France is unwilling to take such applicants back under the provisions of our informal readmission agreement with them, arguing that the issue of whether the Dublin Convention should apply to these cases must be resolved first….

Straw was worried about the "requests from other Member States to accept back some of the Czechs and Slovaks who have returned to France". Such a "merry-go-round" was hardly enjoyed by the asylum seekers themselves. But who were they, and why did they flee the "new democracies" of Central and Eastern Europe that were on the cusp of being admitted to the EU "club of free nations"?

Persecuted Minorities

In the run-up to the EU Accession Conference in March 1998, Home Secretary Jack Straw asked Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to:

"…use this opportunity to raise again the problems of Roma in the Czech and Slovak Republics with their respective Ministers and impress, yet further in the strongest possible terms, upon them the need for them to take action to reduce the incidence of discrimination an ensure that the authorities offer effective protection to the community from random violence".

Jack Straw suggested “possible greater linkage to the accession of Slovakia to the EU”.
It didn't work, as Robin Cook informed Jack Straw in July 1998, well after his meeting with the Czech and Slovak foreign ministers at the EU Accession Conference:

"It is clear that individual Roma in both the Czech and Slovak Republics suffer serious discrimination, and that the authorities have been slow to prosecute the perpetrators of racial assaults (usually neo-Nazi skinhead groups)".

Cook said London continued to remind both governments of the link between their handling of problems with minorities and their prospects of EU membership. Apparently, it was a weak link. In the end, a visa regime had to be imposed on Slovakia, but it did not impress other EU candidates. One year on, in June 1999, Home Secretary Jack Straw took stock of the asylum seekers problem:

"…applications from the Czech Republic in particular and also from Poland have shown a worrying upward trend… If numbers suddenly increased, we would need, very quickly, to revisit the issue of visa regimes on one or more countries. This would of course be very difficult politically, not least considering the support these countries have given over Kosovo".

Ironically, the very CEE countries that supported the Western punishment of Serbia over the treatment of Kosovars were themselves guilty of mistreating their own ethnic minorities.
© Photo : PixabayChildren touching hands over the flag of the European Union
Children touching hands over the flag of the European Union - Sputnik International, 1920, 14.02.2022
Children touching hands over the flag of the European Union
Jack Straw urged Tony Blair to agree to contingency plans for imposing visas not just on the Czech Republic, but on Poland, "and possibly Croatia and Lithuania", citing evidence of people smuggling and racketeering in those countries.
The Foreign Office was "resolutely opposed to any additional visa requirements", arguing "we just cannot do this to the two countries nearest accession”. One of Blair’s foreign policy advisers, Michael Tatham, opined that “there would certainly be a sharp reaction if we were to impose visas on Poland and the Czech Republic".

“Both countries (however mistakenly) see the issue in highly political terms - as a badge of their progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration, a sign of their readiness for EU membership. The issue has considerable domestic resonance in the countries concerned – the imposition of visas would be a blow to the respective governments. So we can be sure they would react badly and explaining our problem to them would not do much to sweeten the blow”, wrote Michael Tatham.

The CEE governments in their replies to London’s complaints blamed the problem on Britain’s attractiveness to benefits seekers, not on the discrimination of Roma and other ethnic minorities in their own countries. Czech President and celebrated human rights champion Vaclav Havel invited Tony Blair to "reflect together on the problem of Roma discrimination and Czech asylum-seekers", and for the states of the European Union "to feel their share of responsibility".
Havel’s Prime Minister Milos Zeman went even further by reminding Blair of what was at stake: a £1.5 billion contract with British Aerospace to supply the Czech Republic with fighter aircraft. He was seconded by Chief Executive of British Aerospace John Weston, who warned Tony Blair:

"The imposition of visa regime would have a damaging impact on the warm political relationship that underpins our commercial efforts with this new NATO ally and future EU partner. I would ask this to be borne in mind in considering a visa regime", John Weston wrote to Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell.

Apparently to maximise the impact of his warning, Weston reminded Tony Blair of the latter’s own lobbying of the deal. He attached a copy of Tony Blair’s letter to Milos Zeman:

"… to let you know at the start of the process that British Aerospace has my full support and that of my colleagues in the British Government…I will take a personal interest in their work to develop a long-term European partnership with the Czech Republic".

From Asylum Seekers to Benefit Cheats

Coincidentally or not, the British government changed tack on asylum seekers from Central Europe. As Foreign Secretary Robin Cook described the applicants to Tony Blair:

"…those who, far from fleeing prosecution in their own countries, are seeking to profit from the length of time it takes for asylum cases to be processed, and to gain access to state benefits while their cases are considered".

The Home Office claimed that the influx of asylum seekers had led to a housing crisis in London and other major cities that had to provide accommodation to immigrants at the expense of the local homeless.
CC BY 2.0 / DAVID HOLT / Armed Police arrest the HomelessArmed Police arrest the Homeless
Armed Police arrest the Homeless - Sputnik International, 1920, 14.02.2022
Armed Police arrest the Homeless
As a result, almost all applications for asylum in the UK from CEE countries were rejected - despite the guidelines of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that the discrimination on ethnic grounds faced by the Roma “may be such that they might well be able to substantiate claims to refugee status under the 1951 Convention”.
The Home Office report made no bones about the treatment of asylum seekers from Central and Eastern Europe:
The Czech Republic – over 1,000 asylum seekers in 1998, over 1,500 in the first half of 1999. On initial consideration, all applications for asylum were refused and the vast majority of the negative decisions were upheld on appeal. Most applications were from the Roma community.
Poland – 3,000 asylum seekers from Poland in 1998. All applications were refused. The great majority was from the Roma community.
Croatia – the great majority of applicants were ethnic Serbs, 90% refused.
Discrimination against the Serbian community in Croatia, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook added, was widely documented, as was the Croatian government’s deliberately slow progress on the return of ethnic Serb refugees. Since Croatia at the time was “off the radar screen” in terms of NATO or EU membership, imposing a visa regime on the country was a done deal. But Poland was a different kettle of fish, as Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told Tony Blair:
The Polish lobby here would be vociferous and would attract much support. The Poles would be much more likely than the Czechs to retaliate.

Go Home or Else

So instead of tackling the issue of ethnic discrimination in CEE countries by linking their accession to NATO and EU with progress on human rights, the Foreign Office suggested speeding up the deportation of asylum seekers. Robin Cook wrote:
Claimants from countries like the Czech Republic, who are invariably rejected on appeal, should be processed on a "fast track". The sooner they are turned down and deported, the more others will get the message and go elsewhere. We will stage a vigorous information campaign among potential asylum seekers, on the basis of Home Office guidance.
© AFP 2023 / BEN STANSALLWaleed (3L), 29, a Kuwaiti migrant, stands with other migrants onboard the DHB Dauntless tug boat as they are brought to shore by the UK Border Force after illegally crossing the English Channel from France on a dinghy on September 11, 2020, in the marina at Dover, on the south coast of England
Waleed (3L), 29, a Kuwaiti migrant, stands with other migrants onboard the DHB Dauntless tug boat as they are brought to shore by the UK Border Force after illegally crossing the English Channel from France on a dinghy on September 11, 2020, in the marina at Dover, on the south coast of England - Sputnik International, 1920, 14.02.2022
Waleed (3L), 29, a Kuwaiti migrant, stands with other migrants onboard the DHB Dauntless tug boat as they are brought to shore by the UK Border Force after illegally crossing the English Channel from France on a dinghy on September 11, 2020, in the marina at Dover, on the south coast of England
14 years later, with the immigration crisis showing no signs of abating, another "vigorous" Home Office campaign turned nasty, with the slogan "Go Home or Face Arrest" widely criticised for being too reminiscent of racist graffiti common in the 1970s.
The free movement of people, a fundamental tenet of the European Union, proved too much for the British economic and political system.
The xenophobic card played a major role in the Brexit referendum and its outcome. Having "anchored" Central and Eastern Europe firmly in the EU for geopolitical purposes, HMS Britain has raised its own anchor and left port.
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