UK immigration - Brussels to block Tory ideas

Radical immigration policies released yesterday by the UK's opposition Conservative Party have drawn criticism from the European Commission, the Telegraph newspaper reports.

In a pre-election speech on January 24, Conservative leader Michael Howard announced a two-pronged approach to reforming immigration. Firstly, a Conservative Government would introduce a quota and points system for skilled immigrants and set a quota for work permits. Secondly, and more controversially, Mr. Howard promised to bring in a quota system that would limit the number of refugees accepted by Britain every year.

The opposition leader says this second policy is needed to combat human trafficking. However, refugee advocacy groups have said the policy would put lives at risk and smacks of racism. Now the European Commission has declared that it will block such reform because they contravene commitments Britain has signed up to.

Officials in Brussels say that a qualifications directive signed by the UK prevents it from withdrawing from the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. This directive establishes a binding EU definition of who is a refugee and becomes valid next September regardless of which party is in power.

Friso Roscam Abbing, the chief spokesman for the EU justice commissioner, Franco Frattini, has said that since 1997 Britain has explicitly opted into negotiations on these and other issues relating to a common asylum policy.

"There is nothing in these protocols that allows a British Government to opt back out again, so Britain is bound by them," he said.

The official added that the Commission could begin "infringement proceedings" if a country passes laws contravening EU regulations.