On 1 January, restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians entering the UK were lifted. Since then – and indeed, even before then – various efforts have been made to place new restrictions on them. There has been talk about capping the number of EU citizens who can come to the UK, extending the seven year period of more general restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians, and limiting Romanians’ and Bulgarians’ access to benefits in the UK. Why is everyone so afraid of Romanians and Bulgarians? Let’s consider the facts surrounding each of these recent moves.
Firstly, the Tories are considering capping the number of EU migrants entering the UK at 75,000 per year. Under this plan, highly skilled migrants could come to the UK only if they had a job offer, and low skilled migrants would only be allowed to work in sectors where there is a ‘national shortage’. In 2004, Labour opened the door to migrants from Eastern Europe to fill a gap in the low end sector of the economy. And that’s what happened: Eastern Europeans ended up in low-skilled jobs, working longer hours for lower wages than native British workers. If a cap on EU migration were to be put in place, Britain will likely need to look elsewhere for an easily exploitable labour force to fill a new gap in the economy unfilled by these workers. So why is there this talk about a cap in the first place? Evidence shows that Eastern Europeans have not adversely affected the employment rates of British workers but instead have contributed to the overall growth of the economy. Capping the number of European migrants could actually hurt the economy. (And it should go without saying that it’s also antithetical to the EU’s fundamental principle of the free movement of peoples.)
Secondly, some Conservatives have petitioned David Cameron to extend the restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants until 2018. They want the UK to exercise a safeguard clause in Romania and Bulgaria’s Accession Treaties that allows current member states to extend restrictions if they are experiencing ‘serious labour market disturbances’. The clause does exist; the serious labour market disturbances caused by Romanians and Bulgarians, however, do not (at least not as a result of migration from Romania and Bulgaria). And, as Conservatives are keen to remind us at other times, the economy is supposedly on the mend. This is not the picture of ‘serious labour market disturbances’ that requires a cap on Romanians and Bulgarians.
Thirdly, all parties now support restrictions on access to benefits for Romanian and Bulgarian migrants. This is arguably the main focus of public and political concern about Romanians and Bulgarians: they are unscrupulous benefit scroungers keen to live off the generosity of the British welfare state. There is, however, simply no evidence of this. Yet there is clear evidence that Eastern Europeans pay 34% more into the system in taxes than they take out in benefits (Brits in contrast take out 11% more than they pay in). This is consistent with what we know about migration in general. The typical profile of first generation immigrants is young and able-bodied. Eastern Europeans additionally are highly skilled. Such migrants are willing to work long hours for low wages and are much more likely to return home if they can’t find work then remain in Britain, living off the ‘generosity’ of its welfare state. To be sure, Eastern Europeans may become (more of) a strain on the system once they start having more kids and later (particularly) when they reach pensionable age. But they’re not right now. Now we’re the ones exerting a strain on the system. Indeed, we can be grateful for the extra money Eastern Europeans are paying into the system to help support our welfare habit.
Who’s afraid of Romanians and Bulgarians, then? The Tories, Labour, and Lib Dems. And they’re afraid not because they place a strain on services or their numbers are too high. They’re afraid because they don’t want to lose votes to UKIP.
The School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) is organising a public lecture on 10 February 2014 titled: ‘Labour Migration in the European Union. The Inconvenient Truth’. László Andor, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion will be the speaker. The event is free but online booking is required via: https://labour-migration-in-eu.eventbrite.co.uk