Tony Blair defends call for EU migration curbs

Media captionTony Blair: “If you think there is a different and better way… argue for it”

Tony Blair has defended his call for new controls on EU migration as a cabine minister accused him of a belated “epiphany” on the issue.

The ex-PM said the UK could stay in the EU after all with new curbs in place.

He claimed this would address people’s “grievances” without the “sledgehammer” of Brexit.

Critics have pointed to his Labour government’s decision not to apply transitional controls to eastern European migrants in 2004.

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“It’s a bit late now, this epiphany”, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.

Sir Michael said “election after election” had shown the public wanted “proper controls” over immigration.

“I think it’s a pity he didn’t think of that when all these new countries were admitted to the European Union on his watch,” he added.

Unlike France and Germany, which did not give migrants from the 10 countries which joined the EU in May 2004 full access to their labour market until 2011, the then-Labour government did not insist on any transitional controls.

Mr Blair responded: “The situation back then was different.”

He told the Marr show the economy had been strong when he left office in 2007 before the financial crash, adding: “You’ve got to listen to what people are saying and react to it.”

The former prime minister, one of the most prominent anti-Brexit campaigners, said he accepted last year’s Leave vote but said there were ways of controlling EU immigration without leaving.

He said he believed Brexit would go ahead “unless it starts to become obvious that the public is having second thoughts” – and that “hasn’t become obvious yet”.

“If we put this case to people, maybe they will listen. If they don’t – I accept it goes forward,” he said.

Pro-EU Conservative Ken Clarke told Sky News it was “hopeless” to think the UK could stay in the EU, given the “mood of the country”.

Migration plans

The government has said free movement will end with the UK’s EU membership, and a forthcoming immigration bill will set out its plans in detail.

Last week leaked draft plans suggested firms would have to recruit locally unless they could prove an “economic need” to employ EU citizens and ending the right to settle in Britain for most European migrants.

Under existing rules, citizens of other EU countries can be removed after six months if they have not found a job, have no realistic possibility of finding one, and require support from the welfare system.

But the new report by Mr Blair’s Institute for Global Change says EU nationals should already have an offer of work when they arrive.

Those who did not earn permission to stay would be banned from opening a bank account, renting a home or claiming benefits.

The report also proposes restricting free healthcare for unemployed migrants and letting universities charge EU nationals higher tuition fees than UK students.

The co-chairman of the campaign group Leave Means Leave, Richard Tice, said Tony Blair’s attempt to deny democracy would be seen for what it was, and ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage said Mr Blair was “the reason we are in this mess”.

Downing Street declined to comment.

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