European Movement UK

Britain's future is with Europe! Join the debate and put your opinion forward!

by Vicky Pryce, economist and former Joint Head of the Government’s Economic Service.///

If the recent debate is anything to go by, it seems that immigration will be the main political issue in the UK in 2014. Not only will it be the topic on which the European elections will be fought in May but the outcome of those elections will define the agenda for the 2015 UK general elections and will hang round the neck of the three main political parties. The only beneficiary is likely to be UKIP which has played this very cleverly, fanning the flames of increasing discontent already expressed by the population following the large and unpredicted rise in Eastern European immigration after their accession to the EU in 2004.

What a sad state of affairs. Europe was very low down the political agenda among UK voters but a good showing for UKIP at the local elections in May 2013 put the frighteners on the Conservatives who are now erecting barriers for new immigrants from the EU and trying to get other countries in Europe to compromise the right of free movement, agree to a cap of new entrants, tighter benefit rules and various conditions for new countries joining the EU in the future which would restrict free movement depending on a country’s economic wealth relative to the EU average. Labour has more or less followed suit, denouncing its own policy of not imposing restrictions on Eastern European EU citizens, which led to the arrival of more than expected Poles etc. – after being one of few countries in Europe to open up its borders way ahead of others when Poland joined the EU in 2004 – despite it having been overall beneficial for the UK economy.

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, are each asking for restricting immigrants’ access to benefits for 2 years and 5 years respectively. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable for the Lib Dems have rather belatedly, come out to denounce this ‘nasty’ policy of trying to impose further restrictions on benefits to new immigrants, in very emotive terms.

Romanian and Bulgarians have since January 1st this year seen the end of their transition period after joining the EU and will now enjoy full free movement of labour across borders – an extraordinary state of affairs known for quite some time now. Not to mention that those who wanted to come to the UK are mostly here already and there are now many more countries in Europe they can move to instead as we all lifted restrictions at at the same time, making a massive influx less likely. But that is something that hasn’t stopped UKIP from attempting to frighten people with visions of the entire Bulgarian and Romanian populations busy booking their one way tickets to move over here and take our jobs and scam our benefit system.

What is going on? To an immigrant like me who came over from Greece some 40 years ago to what was then a land of freedom and opportunity, the current atmosphere seems eerily odd. Many countries in the Continent have experienced considerable immigration, in some places much bigger than in the UK, and have by and large managed to deal with it. They view our mass hysteria with bewildered amusement. In truth the Eastern Europeans appear to have become a convenient scapegoat for the recent shambles in the NHS, the lack of proper planning by cash starved Councils, the problems in our schools, in transport, in the housing shortage. Yet a number of recent studies have demonstrated that Eastern Europeans make less use of public services than British people and are net contributors to the Exchequer and have helped rather than hindered growth.

Yes, the social issues need to be addressed as they have been mostly ignored so far. It is true that new arrivals have caused tensions in areas where they have gone in large numbers such as in Peterborough and Boston in Lincolnshire. But without them many businesses would not exist and spending and employment would not have risen in those neighbourhoods.

Recent surveys suggest that people are beginning to see the economic advantages of immigration for the UK but a narrow majority want further restrictions, worrying about their own jobs, especially low skilled ones, and concerned about social cohesion. The politicians need to find a way out of this unedifying mess. Protectionism tends to be strongest at times of serious economic hardship. And yet concern has flared up here just as we are creating so many new jobs in the UK and optimism has soared. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility spelled out a few months ago the negative impact on the UK’s growth and on this country’s debt position if net migration were to stop or even to drop to the “tens of thousands” that the Conservatives have pledged to achieve.

The conclusion therefore is that of course immigration must be properly managed and planned for. But knee jerk reactions need to be avoided as they show the UK up for what it should never be – a nation frightened of its own shadow – even though it had been and continues to be, to its credit, one of the European nations keenest on expanding the borders of the European Union! The way the current debate is being handled risks leaving the UK with a diminished international standing and a poorer economic performance in return for probably only transitory party political electoral advantages.

Vicky Pryce’s updated book ‘Greekonomics’ on the Eurozone crisis has just been published by Biteback Publishing.

 

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Comments

  1. A rather over-critical attack on the UK, and for what reason – the UK is attempting to protect its own interests…..that only seems to be a crime when the UK does it.

    We already feel that we over-donate money to the rest of the EU, so having someone come to work in the UK, while leaving their family at home, and then expecting all the benefits of a UK citizen is regarded as inappropriate.

    Why should we be sending £millions to other countries, to, for example, support families, when we struggle to fund our own citizens.

    This is all about economics and nothing to do with where hardworking people come from, but yes, some real controls need to be put in place to ensure the UK taxpayers are not being taken for an even bigger ride.

  2. In the closing paragraph the author says “of course immigration must be properly managed and planned for”, but that precisely misses the point, under the EU freedom of movement, there can be absolutely no control whatsoever of such immigration. Any member of an EU state is free to move and seek employment (and after meeting certain obligations receive benefits), it is therefore by definition entirely unmanaged. The fact that an economist can fail to see such a basic flaw tends to undermine the entire thrust of her argument.

    It may very well be the case that while the migrants themselves make a net contribution to the National Exchequer, the social and infrastructure costs are not included in such calculations and when they are factored in the positive impact is much less certain. I would also draw the author’s attention to recent polls that show a majority of those polled would accept a reduced rate of economic growth as a worthwhile cost of regaining control of frontiers and for the social cohesion that implies. The bottom line is of course we want highly qualified law abiding individuals who contribute to the UK, but those who lack qualifications or are prepared to abuse our laws are much less welcome.

    As a final point, I would suggest that the author starts to read reports from Germany, The Netherlands and other Northern European States where there are also heated public debates on the unrestricted movement of large numbers of people. The recent comments by Horst Seehofer (CSU leader) on this subject are a case in point.

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