The final transitional immigration controls on Romania and Bulgaria are set to expire in January 2014, seven years after these new Eastern Europeans became citizens of the European Union. In the United Kingdom, parallels are already being drawn with the 2004 “wave” of immigration, when Poland and the other A8 countries gained the rights to travel and work throughout the EU. However, the main “pull” factors of immigration, which include employment opportunities, relative gross national interest per capita (GNI per capita) and comparative opportunities across the EU, all suggest that the immigration flow from Romania and Bulgaria will not only be significantly smaller than 2004 levels, but will also be more diffuse throughout EU member states.
A recently released study by Oxford University's Migration Observatory has drawn out the long-term impact of A8 immigration on the UK, placing the “tsunami” effect into a broader context. Estimations made in 2004 predicted 15,000 people per year would move from the new EU member states to the UK. The average annual Long-Term International Migration inflow of EU citizens was, in fact, increased to around 170,000 in the period 2004-2010, in comparison to the 67,000 over the previous six years. As a percentage of EU citizens, the A8 immigrants accounted for around 50 per cent of that movement, meaning that Eastern Europeans made up only one-third of the total migrant inflow into the UK. Nevertheless, the failure to anticipate the impact of lifting these restrictions left a deep mark in the political landscape of the UK.
The negative framing of Eastern European immigration has returned in the form of an endless stream of unskilled and unemployed “benefit tourists”. It may be narrow politicking but the image has maintained its potency. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) now displays a countdown clock on their website for when, as The Telegraph has also warned, “Twenty-nine million Bulgarians and Romanians will gain the right to live and work unrestricted in Britain.” Research by the Open Society in Sofia actually suggests that the inflow of Bulgarian immigrants would be “far less significant in volume and it is less likely…. [to] cause labour market disruption” than the A8 access.
Migration “pull factors”
A key driver for the economic immigration in is the high difference between unemployment levels. In 2004, unemployment in Poland lay at 18.9 per cent, over 10 per cent higher than Britain's 4.6 per cent. Whilst Bulgaria remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, its unemployment rate is dropping to comparable levels with Western Europe, and the rate of 12.4 per cent to the UK's 7.8 per cent is much less drastic. Given the trend of rising unemployment in the UK, the country's attractiveness as a destination of economic migration is in question. This is even more true for Romanians who are experiencing a lower unemployment rate than the UK, at only 6.7 per cent.
As Ivan Krastev, chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, recently pointed out in The Guardian, if unemployment was the only pull factor, Spain and Greece would be greater candidates for emigration. Equally, there are other European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands that have significantly lowed unemployment rates, particularly in the youth age groups. Given the declining youth population in Romania, generally the most mobile group, the pool of potential emigrants is also shrinking, and will spread more disparately in the hunt for opportunities.
The income differential, measured by GNI per capita, and its corollary of the desire to establish a better standard of living suggests the UK is a desirable place to work, but increasingly less than it was in 2004. The GNIs of Romania and Bulgaria lie at about a half and one-third respectively of the UK's GNI, significantly more than the level of Poland (1/5th) during the 2004 surge of immigration. As the UK border agency noted in a report last year, if Romanian migrants wanted to maximise the rewards of their migration, they should travel instead to Spain where they can expect a higher standard of living “to live alone or with a Spanish family” than in the UK, where the cost of housing, particularly in London, would mean “that Romanian nationals tend to share accommodation with several other individuals”.
The proliferation of labour markets in the EU, generated by the mutual removing of visa restrictions across Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and France, as well as the UK, will lead to a proliferation of choice for economic migrants. This in turn will ensure that the market disturbance caused by any migration will be minimised within any one state. In fact, Open Society research has suggested that continuation of restrictions, a suggested “antidote” to migration, has had little impact on where migrants choose to go. The working restrictions put up in Germany at the time of accession had little impact on Romanian migration in comparison to Spain, where they had free access to the labour market. The removal of such restrictions should therefore do little to penalise those states who have not already opened up their workforces, just as they have had little effect in channelling immigration away from those states who put them up.
Early indications suggest that the numbers of economic migrants taking this route will actually be lower than expected. Open Society has shown that labour migration has declined since Bulgaria joined the EU, and evidence from the Romanian Embassy in London concludes that: “Large numbers have already been working in the EU over the past years, suggesting that many of those who wanted to move have already done so.” If the mechanics of removing borders across a number of members states will enable a greater movement of immigration across Europe, there still remains a large question as to how much appetite for immigration actually remains in these parts of the EU.
Numbers or trends?
As agreed under the accession treaties of Romania and Bulgaria, the UK cannot extend the restrictions over Romanian and Bulgarian nationals without breaking EU laws, although voices within the UK political establishment are already expressing fear of this event. Migration Watch, a UK body, has suggested that between 30,000 and 70,000 new immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria will enter the UK over the next five years. However, these figures do not match the indicative patterns and trends of migration suggested across studies referenced here.
Plotting the key trends of migration is not a precise science, and certainly there will be increases in inflows of migration. But the instinct to predict immigration figures at the minute seems to inevitably lead to a discourse of outdated scaremongering over a scramble of jobs, housing and welfare resources, let alone by questioning the motives of those who emigrate. These narratives will do little to aid policymakers tackle the endemic economic and societal problems that emerge from a common market, as well as hindering options to build a positive relationship with the new Eastern Europe.
There are a number of studies on this issue, for more detailed analysis:
UK Border Agency report, November 2011: http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/sitecontent/documents/aboutus/workingwithus/mac/-restrictions-worker1/transitional-restrictions.pdf?view=Binary
Open Society, November 2011: http://osi.bg/downloads/File/2011_New/Bg_trudova_migracia_ENG_kor.pdf
IPPR Migration Review December 2012:
Migration Watch 17 Jan 2013: http://www.migrationwatchuk.org/pressReleases#347
Mathew Shearman is a London based politics editor of the transnational life magazine Europe and Me. For more, follow him at @shearmanm