The Tories' political cul-de-sac on EU migration

Opinion piece (E!Sharp)
08 August 2013

Right from the start, EU immigration was the glaringly obvious hole in David Cameron’s pledge to "reduce net immigration into the UK from the hundreds to the tens of thousands". The prime minister has closed down entire tiers of Britain’s points-based visa system. He has reduced the numbers of international students dramatically: 2012 saw a large drop off in international registrations, despite appalled university administrations and liberal mouthpieces like The Economist. But what can he do about immigration from the EU, which normally accounts for a little less than half the UK’s annual intake?

EU nationals are free to move to Britain without restrictions for up to three months after which they must be working, self-sufficient or studying to stay. There are just over 2 million living in the UK and this accounts for a little over half of the country’s foreign-born population. They mainly hail from Poland, Lithuania, France, Germany and Italy, in that order. But, on average, these countries are decreasing sources of migration to Britain compared with a larger and increasing share from India, China and Pakistan. (Many Lithuanians have returned home in recent years, for example.)

Britain seems to have moved into an era where migration statistics – and expected arrivals from countries such as Bulgaria or Romania – shape the political agenda almost as much as gross domestic product figures. Other UK political parties criticise Cameron’s immigration policies for a lack of efficacy, not for their wrong-headedness, while scraping the policy barrel themselves for ideas on how to limit EU migrants’ access to Britain’s social security net. The Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband spoke recently of the need for ‘procedural fairness’ regarding the distribution of social housing to EU migrants or their eligibility for Child Benefit if used for children not resident in Britain. Even the nominally pro-European Liberal Democrats have quietly shelved any lenient-sounding rhetoric on immigration.

The UK’s panic over immigration figures has endured for six years. Home secretaries (interior ministers) have fallen because they could not say how many illegal immigrants there were in the country. (In January, a study commissioned for the Home Office finally had a go – 863,000.) The UK Border Agency was established, and then its abolition announced, earlier this year. Refugee backlogs have been cleared, only to accumulate again. But this is the first time that EU migration has really taken centre stage in Britain’s immigration debate since the UK opened its doors to migrants from Central and Eastern Europe in 2004.

EU migrants cannot simply arrive in Britain, sign on to the dole and put themselves in the queue for a house, an image that is heavily suggested by much media and political rhetoric on the subject. The law says they must be eligible for the same benefits as other Britons, but only after they have been ’habitually resident’ for at least six months. Before then, their home country is responsible for their social security needs and any (say, medical) expenses related to their stay in the UK are reclaimable. Poland’s social security ministry – for example – pays out millions every year to other EU countries’ health services for care of Polish nationals.

A bit like German public opinion and the euro crisis, if one reads the British media, you might imagine that Britain gets by the worst deal overall from the EU’s free migration regime.Butthat prize arguably goes to Spain, where migrants continue to arrive in large numbers despite the country’s serious economic problems. Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain all have greater percentages of EU nationals living in their countries than Britain, and Germany has roughly the same number in absolute terms.

The British debate also routinely ignores the reality that the EU’s free circulation regime is a two-way street. There are around 1.7 million British nationals living elsewhere in the EU (mainly France and Spain).  Furthermore, the UK’s open labour market tends to attract the young, and therefore healthier, migrants who are less of a burden on its health service. By contrast, Spain – home to roughly 700,000 Britons, many of them retirees – complains that its medical system is under intense pressure because of the requirement to look after EU residents and tourists.

If Britain were to send home its Poles, Spain would send back its British pensioners; Germany and Italy, their Romanians; and so on. 

It seems unlikely anyhow that the Tories live up to their pledge on migration whether free movement exists or not. Latest figures from the OECD record a net migration (inflows minus outflows) of around 215,000 for 2011 with a further decrease in the annual intake expected when the 2012 figures become available.  Even if all migration from EU countries were to evaporate tomorrow, Britain’s annual net intake would more likely to be above the 100,000 figure.

EU countries are due to sit down in 2014 to discuss the future of free movement, as well as that of the Union’s passport-free zone, the Schengen area. Until now, the focus of such talks has always been on the security aspects of free circulation and the need to boost police and judicial co-operation to catch fleeing criminals. The next few years are likely to see such cooperation becoming much more focused on prevention of tax evasion and welfare fraud.  In the longer term, it seems likely that EU countries will need a ministerial forum to discuss how they manage their labour markets, including when and where certain restrictions might be a reasonable proposition. The lifting of labour market restrictions with Bulgaria and Romania in 2014 will keep this issue live, although its impact on the UK is likely far more limited than is anticipated. The greater part of Romanian migrants head for North America. In Europe, their preferred destination is currently Germany, by a long shot.

Of course, all of this ignores the fact that even The Daily Telegraph acknowledges that “because of immigration to the UK, British taxes are lower, spending is higher and the deficit is smaller.” Furthermore, pashmina-wearing French residents in Kensington or honest, hard-working Poles in Tooting are not exactly hurling Molotov cocktails at police à la the riots in the suburbs of Stockholm this spring. EU migrants to Britain are mainly young, reasonably well-educated, industrious, more likely to move back home than non-Europeans, less likely to be on benefits, far less likely to need social housing and exhibit relatively few integration or security-related problems. In short, Britain could hardly wish for better migrants than those it receives from its European hinterland. And that poses the question: will the UK’s long panic over immigration ever end?