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The UK government’s competence review, which will form the backbone of the renegotiation of the UK relationship with the EU that the Prime Minister wants to achieve – has not been completed. Yet there are no prizes for guessing one of the targets in its sights: freedom of movement of workers. The UK government has become hot and bothered about the potential influx of EU citizens from Bulgaria and Romania, owing to the realisation that it can no longer block their freedom to work in the UK once the transitional period set by the Treaty expires on 1 January 2014.

It appears that with the current high levels of unemployment, the blame being put on the eurozone for the continuing economic crisis, and the proposed renegotiation and referendum on EU membership, a perfect storm has brought immigration back to the top of the UK debate, with freedom of movement for EU workers in the firing line. This was seen most clearly in the Eastleigh by-election campaign, which featured an aggressive UKIP campaign on immigration: and an aping of it by the Tories.

Creativity has no limits, unlike free movement of workers

Since the 2004 EU enlargement, the issue of opening up labour markets to new member states has been much debated. As is often the case in the field of migration, it boiled down to a numbers game played by political parties. Wild media estimates were wide of the mark, but so was the Labour government’s prediction of 50,000 arrivals from the new EU member states in 2004. Although the Labour government was not far off (52,000 in 2004; and most recently 72,000 in 2012), the total number of 600,000 EU entrants in 2004, including seasonal workers from eight new member states, made this a political stick to hit the Labour Party with.

Despite these large numbers, in the boom years new EU citizens were seen as giving the UK economy an extra push. This was due to their willingness to do jobs that UK citizens wouldn’t touch and to work anti-social hours, to their contribution to UK tax and social security receipts, and to the broader multiplier effect on the rest of the economy. This benefit is still acknowledged by the Labour Party, as noted by Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper in a speech recently, though the party’s attitude towards immigration is these days much more qualified.

A principle only in the good times

A change of government and economic context heralded a change of heart regarding EU workers. In May 2012, the Tory-led coalition government first expressed fears when the euro zone crisis was at its peak, showing a remarkable absence of solidarity with Greece when Home Secretary Teresa May pointed out that “it is right that we do some contingency planning on this,” in reference to outlandish reports of Greeks and other EU citizens of crisis countries “flooding” into the UK.

Having investigated such contingency planning, creative solutions were revealed due to the unlawfulness of restricting the right of EU citizens to work in the UK. The UK Home Office considered the idea of running a negative advertising campaign to persuade Romanians and Bulgarians to stay at home. This was slapped down immediately by people from across the political spectrum, including Keith Vaz, head of the House of Commons Home Affairs committee.

Theresa May, the Conservative Home Secretary has also floated the idea of a “cash bond” for EU migrants coming to Britain, which would then be paid back if they do not claim benefits. The idea has now been endorsed by the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister. Why this is deemed to be necessary is perplexing given that non-UK nationals make up just 6.4% of those claiming working-age benefits, of which only a quarter are from the EU. They are also 60% less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits, and 58% less likely to live in social housing.

The Home Secretary also came up with the legally questionable idea of limiting access to social benefits and health care for new arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria. This idea was enshrined in a policy proposal by the Labour Shadow Home Secretary last week, who called for the addition of a ‘presence’ test to the existing ‘habitual residence’ test for access to benefits for EU citizens, demonstrating that the Labour Party has also jumped on this bandwagon.

A new ‘flood’ of EU migrants?

The UK government’s fears are likely to be overblown: the “flooding” is unlikely to materialise. When the UK opened its labour market in 2004, it was among just three ‘old’ member states to open up to the 10 new EU countries, which included among their ranks Poland with its population of 38 million. Back then, the opening took place in times of economic prosperity. This time around, the UK will be just one destination among many for EU citizens of only two countries, and in testing economic times.

Another factor that must be taken into account is that Romanians – and to a lesser extent Bulgarians – have already moved to the 15 countries that have already opened their labour markets, and particularly to those which are geographically or linguistically closer, such as Italy and Spain. Furthermore, previous experience of delayed labour market openings, such as Germany’s opening up to the 2004 enlargement countries in 2011, indicates that barely a trickle can be expected.

As for the pull factor, if demand for labour plays a role in intra-EU mobility, surely the fact that the UK is also suffering from the economic crisis will stem the feared “flood” of Romanians and Bulgarians to the UK’s shores. As the numbers game is harder to play due to the above factors, a change of course in the debate has taken place: from a narrative of EU citizens taking the jobs of UK nationals to one of taking benefits from the UK welfare system.

The UKIP effect

Politically, the goal of limiting intra-EU mobility is the same, but the goalposts are changing. With this in mind, considerations by all parties are largely a result of political strategy rather than policy, in an effort to address the public’s concerns without confronting the real issues around immigration.

In the end, the real winner from this consensus is UKIP. The party’s merging of the immigration issue with its anti-EU agenda has pushed its dangerous ideas into the mainstream. A combination of the continuing stalling of the UK economy, the continual presence of immigration as a concern for Britons, and a general distrust for all things EU-related, has resulted in a perfect backdrop for attacking the free movement of workers. The 3 main parties, instead of confronting UKIP’s populist rhetoric, chose to harden their stance on immigration in the hope that such a move will afford them an electoral advantage. Many think that the PM’s speech on immigration aims to address the belief that UKIP’s recent rise is down to their stance on immigration. But by jostling to out-maneuver UKIP on immigration, the mainstream parties veer dangerously to the extreme right, which has grave effects on the balance of the political spectrum and public opinion on immigration.

The effects of such chipping away at the principle of free movement of workers for the rest of the EU are highly worrying. They are already being felt at EU level, with a possible new negative coalition of member states starting to emerge. Although many concerns relate to mobility in specific cases like the so-called ‘benefit tourism’ of Sinti and Roma, a more fundamental attack on a cherished EU freedom cannot be ruled out. This should be confronted head on, given the greater impact populist parties are having on mainstream politics across Europe.

Reforming member states’ welfare systems and dealing with any effects that immigration might have on them are challenges EU member states should confront, but any coming together to undermine the free movement of workers should be avoided. After all, in efforts to complete the Single Market, the EU will need to work on establishing a Single European Labour Market, something which the European Policy Centre is working on closely at the moment (http://www.epc.eu/prog_forum.php?forum_id=29&prog_id=2).

Alex Lazarowicz, European Policy Center

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Comments

  1. The solution is clear. British welfare recipients and others depended on the state should move to Romania and Bulgaria where they will be rich.
    I know, I did it.

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