Brexit: Blair Government Blamed For High U.K. Migration

Tony Blair in New York, October 6, 2015. The former U.K. prime minister's immigration policy has been dragged into Britain's EU membership row. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Tony Blair's government was to blame for massive EU migration that led the U.K. to demand an "emergency brake" on migrant benefits, the European Commission president has said.

"In 2004, the U.K. did not use the transitional periods that would have allowed it to phase in the right of free movement of the citizens of eight new member states," Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament on Wednesday. "As a result, over the past decade the U.K. attracted a record number of mobile EU citizens."

On Tuesday, proposed new terms of Britain's EU membership published by European Council President Donald Tusk said that the U.K. should be able to impose temporary limits on migrants claiming in-work benefits—an idea formally called a "safeguard mechanism" but in Britain dubbed an "emergency brake."

Speaking in the parliament, Juncker sought to paint this concession as the EU stepping in to help Britain remedy the consequences of its actions: "In effect, we will enable the United Kingdom to use the safeguard mechanism to address the consequences of that decision," he said.

In 2004, eight former Communist states, including Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic, joined the EU. Where some other wealthy EU states such as Germany imposed "transitional controls" to temporarily restrict the access of these countries' citizens to their labor markets, Britain, under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair, did not.

Between 2004 and 2012, the net inflow of migrants from the A8 countries to the U.K. was 423,000. This was a stark contrast to the original estimate of 13,000 migrants per year for a decade.

Blair has since defended his decision not to impose transitional controls, telling a Channel 4 documentary broadcast in 2015 that "all we did was bring forward what would have happened anyway. In 2004, the economy was booming and we had a requirement for skilled workers from abroad."

Prime Minister David Cameron's proposed new terms of EU membership, which he has negotiated ahead of a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the union, have come in for fierce criticism from politicians and the press. Steve Baker, a eurosceptic MP in Cameron's Conservative Party, said the government was "reduced to polishing poo" in seeking to sell its demands.