Society Migration and populations

United Kingdom: Don’t expect an immigrant tsunami in 2014

29 January 2013
New Eastern Europe Cracow

Ahead of the end of immigration controls on Romania and Bulgaria in January 2014, some UK ministers are thinking of running a campaign to deter a repeat of the 2004 “wave” of immigration when eight former communist countries gained EU working rights. But the eurozone crisis makes this prospect less likely.

Next January, seven years after Romania and Bulgaria became citizens of the European Union, the the final transitional immigration controls on the two countries are set to expire. In the United Kingdom, parallels are already being drawn with the 2004 “wave” of immigration, when Poland and the other so-called A8 countries [Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithunia, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, who joined the EU in 2004] gained the rights to travel and work throughout the EU. [The UK introduced measures between 2004-2011 limiting the number of workers from new accession countries who could work in Britain.]

However, the main “pull” factors of immigration, which include employment opportunities, relative gross national income 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 in 2004 predicted 15,000 people per year would move from the new EU member states to the UK, whereas the average annual Long-Term International Migration inflow of EU citizens increased to around 170,000 in the period 2004-2010, in comparison to the 67,000 over the previous six years.

A deep mark in the political landscape

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 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.

A key driver for economic immigration is the high difference between unemployment levels. In 2004, unemployment in Poland lay at 18.9 per cent, compared to Britain's 4.6 per cent. While Bulgaria remains poor, its current unemployment rate has dropped to 12.4 per cent compared to the UK's 7.8 per cent. 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 Romania, where unemployment is lower than the UK, at 6.7 per cent.

Less attractive destination

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. 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.

Proliferation of choice

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.

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.

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