LONDON -- Britain is in conflict again with its partners in the European Community, this time over border controls.
Britain wants to keep them after Jan. 1. The other 11 members of the EC want them to come off, though only for EC nationals.
Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke warned yesterday that were Britain to lift all controls at the frontiers the country would soon be swamped with illegal aliens, many of whom would have entered through other EC countries. Social instability would result, he said.
He also said, in an earlier statement, that border controls were necessary to "combat terrorism, crime and the traffic in drugs."
The government's position is that when it signed up to the single market, which is supposed to allow the free flow of goods and services among the 12 member countries starting in 1993, Britain did not agree to scrap all border controls.
Mr. Clarke said the problem of illegal immigration was even more acute in other EC countries.
The European Commission, headed by Jacques Delors, who was Margaret Thatcher's nemesis during much of her tenure as prime minister and is slowly becoming Prime Minister John Major's, will be demanding that Britain conform at the July EC summit in Lisbon. If in the end Britain does not, the EC is prepared to go to court.
Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd was in Brussels, Belgium, yesterday pressing Britain's position at a meeting of EC foreign ministers. "We shall be having a general discussion about immigration and I shall be stating Britain's case that passport
checks to establish whether people are EC citizens or not is the best way of controlling security, immigration and international crime," he said.
Britain argues that because it is an island, its response to immigration must be different from the other countries of the EC.
"Our most effective controls are at the border," said a spokesman for the Home Office. "Other countries, with land borders that people can easily cross, do much of their immigration enforcement within the country [through the use of national identity documents]. Britain [which has no such documents] only controls at the frontiers."
Recently the Home Office told Parliament that the only way Britain could accept absolute open borders for EC nationals would be to introduce identity cards and institute regular checks on the streets.
Ireland, which is an island and has no internal identity documents, supports the lifting of border controls but is sympathetic toward Britain.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Dublin said yesterday: "Our view is that we believe all border controls should be taken away but the matter should be worked out through negotiation rather than thecommission getting involved in a legal action against a member state."
Britain sees the matter as a disagreement over what the Single European Act, which enabled the single market to come into being, means.
"It is a straight difference of interpretation of the treaty," said the Home Office official. "Britain is adamant it will not abandon border controls."
The dispute is likely to sour Britain's experience as president of the EC, which it assumes for a six-month term in July.
Two other major disputes between Britain and the other 11 have yet to be resolved:
* The 48-hour work week, which the other countries have accepted but Britain has not.
* An increase in contributions to the EC budget, demanded by the European Commission and resisted by London.