The British government is to abandon its "open-door" policy to Eastern Europe by restricting the inflow of Romanians and Bulgarians when their countries join the EU in January.
In a dramatic U-turn that has been attacked as a sop to the anti-immigration lobby, Home Secretary John Reid will unveil plans to prevent thousands of people from Romania and Bulgaria from going to Britain to work. His move comes after sustained criticism that Polish immigrants are entering the country in unsustainable numbers.
The move is in stark contrast to the treatment of other new EU countries -- including Poland -- to which the UK allowed unlimited access when they joined in 2004. It also reflects political fears about the impact of immigration on working-class Britons.
Reid's plans have been drawn up despite furious opposition from Romanian community leaders, who have complained to British Prime Minister Tony Blair of a "denigrating campaign" against them in a leaked letter.
Senior Foreign Office officials are said to be concerned that the move is a backward step for EU enlargement, but the prime minister's office is said to favor Reid's view that restrictions are necessary to prevent a political backlash.
"The Home Office has made pretty clear its thinking that there needs to be restrictions," a senior source said.
Reid's plans have not yet been cleared by Cabinet colleagues and he is still finalizing them, but he plans to announce time-limited controls on the right of citizens from both countries to work in Britain when they join the EU.
He is expected to say that Britain will take a limited number of unskilled workers to carry out jobs such as fruit picking, but will not offer a general right to work.
Britain cannot legally stop citizens of any new EU countries from moving in, but denying the right to work would reduce the numbers wanting to come. The move is expected to be accompanied by enforcement measures to prevent people entering the black market.
Two former Foreign Office ministers on Saturday attacked the decision, while Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett suggested the debate was still on.
The letter, sent by senior Romanian figures in Britain to Downing Street and which was signed by a number of leading cultural and social organizations, claims that Romania is being unfairly treated following hostile media coverage.
Urging Blair to "follow your beliefs," it says: "We are deeply concerned about the denigrating campaign of the past weeks in the British media that does significant harm to the true image of Romania. The numbers of Romanians who intend to come to work in the UK after January 1, 2007, have been highly exaggerated."