With the fast approaching end of labour restrictions of the 2007 EU Enlargement countries Bulgaria and Romania, reluctance grows in the UK, forming a complex political debate. Are concerns only with regard to the protection of national economy or do they have some broader significance too? This article assesses the main elements of this debate in a UK, EU and UK-EU context.
The drawing on memories of imprecise predictions of immigration levels following the 2004 EU Accession exacerbates bitterness around the continuous UK debate on the consequences, costs and benefits of immigration. It creates insecurity of whether the new sending countries will match the numbers of the 2004 Accession in the years to follow 2014. Concerns are rising in the UK that lifting labour restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania will have a negative impact on the country’s labour market, in the context of high public debt and financial uncertainty. Along with jobs, fears are that the welfare system will also be hit by the upcoming influx of Eastern Europeans. Unlike 2004, instead of high labour demand and low unemployment figures, new immigrants to the UK are to hit the rocks with high levels of (mainly youth) unemployment, well-known housing shortages, and a health care system, already in enormous demand. Further immigration is projected to push wages down for those earning the least on the labour market and to enhance financial uncertainty for a wary British society. Such a scenario not only triggers anxiety of whether the UK economy can take such a burden but it also questions levels of UK sovereignty within the EU.
Migration vs Labour
Considering Bulgaria and Romania vis-à-vis UK labour restrictions, a complex set of paradoxes emerges. Firstly, both have had the right of free migration since 1989 and it is thought that major migration has already occurred, especially in the case of Bulgaria, during the 1990s. Romanians are thought to have preferred Spain and Italy for work over the past years due to cultural and linguistic similarities. Bulgarian labour migration studies also point, that the end of restrictions does not strongly determine migration choices. There is no guarantee that the UK will be the choice of destination for too many. Secondly, in the context of EU membership, both nationalities have the right to live but not work in the UK, which enormously facilitates patterns of exploitation and social isolation. Thirdly, 2009 research on the benefits of migration in the UK following the 2004 EU enlargement have shown that immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe Countries (CEE) are less prone to resort to benefits or social housing than UK-born citizens are, and have influenced the UK fiscal system positively. It appears that it is hard to account for future migration solely in pursue of social benefits, or specific preference of one country, when accurate statistics are a challenge to obtain.
Politics vs Policy
According to recent research, when evaluating government migration policies, the UK public worries most about the cultural and social impact of immigration. Yet, as governments tend to engage with migration regulations driven mainly by economic concerns, so does the UK government, and opposition, support more economic regulations regarding immigration from Bulgaria and Romania. This poses the question, is the main concern of Britain over immigration from EU2 countries about the socio-cultural or economic effects, and who is more concerned –the public or the government?
With migration being a way of enhancing productivity by bringing in labour force into a needy economy, regulating flows of labour, and its economic consequences, is a kind of control not many governments would willingly give up upon. On the one hand, the conservative-led British government has still to live up to its promises of capping immigration. With Eric Pickles and Theresa May debating around the levels of availability of UK welfare system to immigrants and emphasizing the need for change, the government seems to be trying to take a tough stance on further immigration in its efforts to protect the UK job market and welfare state. On the other hand, in the context of current UK-EU relations, with the UK talking about a probability of a potential exit from the union in order to bring more control over its own affairs back home, the end of labour arrangements regarding Bulgarians and Romanians seems to be even more salient. The matter of the two countries gaining access to the UK labour market implicitly, and maybe not so much anymore, touches exclusively on the hot spots in the UK-EU debate, providing with an example of how a sensitive issue, such as immigration has long been in the UK, may have the potential of political polarization, if not handled with care.
Certainly, every government has the right to strive for protection in the domestic space but such issues should not to be used for scoring points on neither national nor inter-governmental level. In the absence of precise knowledge of the exact migration patterns that are about to occur following 2014, forecasts are open to speculation. Evidently, the debate around Bulgaria, Romania, and the UK following 1 January 2014, can be considered in different aspects. It seems it is not simply labour-market orientated, as it is in fact a mixture of issues applicable to economic concerns, but also immigration desirability, UK-EU relations and EU legitimacy.
To go further:
On Nouvelle Europe
- Dossier of February 2013 on European disintegration? The European Project in crisis, 4 February 2013
On the Internet
- Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, UCL, 2009: ‘The Benefit of Migration: new evidence of the fiscal costs and benefits of migration to the UK from Central and Eastern Europe’
- Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, UCL, 2009: ‘The Benefit of Migration ‘Public opinion about immigration policy more related to cultural than economic concerns’
- The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford
- Open Society Institute - Sofia
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