Farewell, Polish plumber

Farewell, Polish plumber

Philip Whyte
07 August 2008

by Philip Whyte

When the EU expanded its membership in 2004, the UK was one of only three EU countries – Ireland and Sweden were the others – fully to open its borders to migrants from the ten new member states. The decision resulted in an unexpectedly large influx of migrants from central and eastern Europe. Ever since, the debate in the host countries has focused on the domestic impact of this wave of immigration. But it is time the debate moved on. For there is strong evidence that few of these migrants have any intention of settling permanently.

The host countries’ initial focus on migratory inflows is entirely understandable. When the EU enlarged its membership in 2004, the British government projected that the annual inflow of central and eastern Europeans to the UK would average between 5,000 and 13,000 through to 2010. It was being too modest. British statistics on migration are a mess, but most estimates suggest that official projections were out by a factor of twenty. Close to a million central and eastern Europeans are thought to have migrated to the UK since 2004.

The conservatism of the government’s initial projections was not unreasonable. By and large, Europeans are a sedentary bunch: they are disinclined to move within their own countries, let alone across national borders (with all the attendant difficulties of adapting to new languages and cultures). Previous enlargements – including the Iberian one in 1986 – had not provoked a dramatic increase in migration across national borders. So why expect the admission of the former Communist-bloc countries to produce different effects?

But the UK under-estimated the strength of the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors at play. Low income per heads, allied to housing shortages and high rates of joblessness (particularly among the young), encouraged many central and eastern Europeans of prime working age to seek their fortunes abroad. And by a happy coincidence, the EU countries that had thrown their borders open to them were enjoying buoyant economic growth and had numerous job vacancies to be filled. Migration was lubricated by low-cost airlines and Skype.

The scale of the influx did not go unnoticed in the host countries. Nor was it universally welcomed. Elements of the UK’s notoriously noisy press spoke of being ‘flooded’ and went out of their way to cast the new entrants as ‘benefit tourists’ – a scurrilous charge, given their exceptionally high rates of employment. Nevertheless, government policy was forced to adapt to this new context. When Bulgaria and Romania were admitted to the EU in 2007, the UK did not feel politically able fully to open its borders to nationals of these countries.

The irony, however, is that government policy has hardened at precisely the moment when the factors that drove migration to the UK in 2004-07 are going into reverse. The over-leveraged UK economy faces a nasty economic downturn and rising joblessness. Sterling has weakened markedly against most European currencies (reducing the relative wage that migrants earn in the UK). Meanwhile, unemployment in central and eastern Europe has been falling while incomes have risen. Against this backdrop, half of the 1 million central and eastern Europeans who came to the UK have returned to their home countries.

In other words, few migrants from the new member states have been escaping their home countries to settle in the wealthier EU member states. Instead, most have been using host countries as revolving doors through which they can enter and exit. Their aim is not to build a new life abroad, but a better one at home. The debate and policy response in the host countries needs to adjust to this reality – particularly as migratory flows will become more evenly distributed across the EU as restrictions on labour movement are gradually relaxed.

Philip Whyte is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.