IN WARNING Prime Minister David Cameron that an “arbitrary” cap on the number of migrants entering the UK from other EU countries would be illegal, Jose Manuel Barroso, the outgoing European Commission president, may only have stated an obvious point about the core principles of EU membership.
But it is almost certain to undermine Mr Cameron’s position ahead of a critical by-election and fuel doubts about his policy of re-negotiation of Britain’s membership.
Mr Barroso’s remarks, which extended to a warning that Britain would have “zero influence” if it voted to leave the EU, could scarcely have come at a worse time for the Prime Minister. The Conservatives lost the recent Clacton by-election to Ukip, which wants further restrictions on immigration and the UK to pull out of the EU. And it is now battling to halt the Ukip advance in the Rochester and Strood by-election on 20 November, triggered by the defection of Conservative MP Mark Reckless to Ukip. Immigration is expected to be a major issue.
The SNP has wasted little time in backing Mr Barroso, with a warning from tourism minister Fergus Ewing that an expected boom for Scotland’s tourism industry could be halted by Mr Cameron’s plans to end free movement for EU citizens. Mr Ewing is now demanding immigration policy be devolved.
Mr Cameron has pinned his election hopes of thwarting Ukip by insisting he would negotiate a better deal for the UK in Europe, ahead of an in-out referendum. But Mr Barroso has made clear that to cut immigration from within the 28-member union would breach rules of “non-discrimination”.
So much for Mr Cameron’s pledge to have “one last go” at re-negotiating the membership rules for Britain: the EU Commissioner’s remarks look to have chopped the legs off his credibility and made it notably difficult to counter the Ukip charge that re-negotiation will prove little more than a fig leaf.
Scotland’s position on the immigration issue is different from that prevailing among many MPs at Westminster. Scotland’s labour force is in need of more people from beyond our shores. Successive Bank of Scotland job surveys in the private professional sector have found growing difficulty in attracting recruits to fill advertised vacancies. And while Mr Ewing may be overstating the risks to tourist visits, there is little doubt our tourism industry is vitally dependent on a flow of young migrants from other EU countries.
This only adds to the predicament in which the UK Prime Minister finds himself. Mr Barroso has confirmed Ukip’s critique of the Tory position on the EU. And in insisting any curbs on immigration would be in breach of EU Treaty fundamentals, next month’s critical by-election has just become that much more difficult for the Conservative Party to hold.
Bags of room for improvement
Wet, late October may not be the ideal time for the 5p plastic bag tax to come into force in Scotland. Many who say they disapprove of plastic bags and support the new charge nevertheless still find themselves using bags for everyday shopping. After all, who wants to come back from the local corner shop with wet morning rolls and a soggy newspaper?
That the charge, which begins today, also applies to paper and biodegradable bags seems perverse and self-defeating. What is so wrong with a small paper bag to help us with the groceries and fresh veg? Now we will all have to lead more organised lives – and store up our existing bags until the bottom falls out of them.
And it’s a new tax – yet another one – and on which VAT is to be charged so the Government gets a cut. However, notwithstanding all this, the new charge should lead to a sharp drop in the millions of plastic bags thoughtlessly discarded every year and make a significant contribution to a tidier, greener Scotland.
Storekeepers can donate the money raised to a charity of their choice. There is criticism that retailers will be under no legal obligation to hand over any of the cash to good causes.
But donating the proceeds to a local good cause may prove a good opportunity for small businesses to build relations and customer support with the voluntary sector. It is heartening that supermarket giant Tesco, somewhat preoccupied at present keeping track of its revenues, is pledging the cash raised to environmental charity Keep Scotland Beautiful. As they say, Every Little Helps.