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A dangerous UK consensus on free movement of workers in the EU

21 March 2013
by: Alex Lazarowicz


The UK government’s competence review – which will form the backbone of the renegotiation of the UK relationship with the EU that the Tory party wants to achieve – has not been completed. Yet there are no prizes for guessing one of the targets in its sights: freedom of movement of workers. The UK government has become hot and bothered about the potential influx of EU citizens from Bulgaria and Romania, owing to the realisation that it can no longer block their freedom to work in the UK once the transitional period set by the Treaty expires on 1 January 2014.

It appears that with the current high levels of unemployment, the blame being put on the euro zone for the continuing economic crisis, and the proposed renegotiation and referendum on EU membership, a perfect storm has brought immigration back to the top of the UK debate, with freedom of movement for EU workers in the firing line. This was seen most clearly in the Eastleigh by-election campaign, which featured an aggressive UKIP campaign on immigration: and an aping of it by the Tories.

What happened to the warm welcome?

Since the 2004 EU enlargement, the issue of opening up labour markets to new member states has been much debated. As is often the case in the field of migration, it boiled down to a numbers game played by political parties. Wild media estimates were wide of the mark, but so was the Labour government’s prediction of 50,000 arrivals from the new EU member states in 2004. Although the Labour government was not far off (52,000 in 2004; and most recently 72,000 in 2012), the total number of 600,000 EU entrants in 2004, including seasonal workers from eight new member states, made this a political stick to hit the Labour Party with.

Despite these large numbers, in the boom years new EU citizens were seen as giving the UK economy an extra push. This was due to their willingness to do jobs that UK citizens wouldn’t touch and to work anti-social hours, to their contribution to UK tax and social security receipts, and to the broader multiplier effect on the rest of the economy. This benefit is still acknowledged by the Labour Party, as noted by Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper in a speech recently.

A principle only in the good times

A change of government and economic context heralded a change of heart regarding EU workers. In May 2012, the Tory-led coalition government first expressed fears when the euro zone crisis was at its peak, showing a remarkable absence of solidarity with Greece when Home Secretary Teresa May pointed out that “it is right that we do some contingency planning on this,” in reference to outlandish reports of Greeks and other EU citizens of crisis countries “flooding” into the UK.

Having investigated such contingency planning, creative solutions were revealed due to the unlawfulness of restricting the right of EU citizens to work in the UK. The UK Home Office considered the idea of running a negative advertising campaign to persuade Romanians and Bulgarians to stay at home. This was slapped down immediately by people from across the political spectrum, including Keith Vaz, head of the House of Lords committee on migration.

The Tory Home Secretary has also floated the idea of a “cash bond” for EU migrants coming to Britain, which would then be paid back if they do not claim benefits. Why this is deemed to be necessary is perplexing given that non-UK nationals make up just 6.4% of those claiming working-age benefits, of which only a quarter are from the EU. They are also 60% less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits, and 58% less likely to live in social housing.

The Tory Home Secretary also came up with the legally questionable idea of limiting access to social benefits and health care for new arrivals from Romania and Bulgaria. This idea was enshrined in a policy proposal by the Labour Shadow Home Secretary last week, who called for the addition of a ‘presence’ test to the existing ‘habitual residence’ test for access to benefits for EU citizens, demonstrating that the Labour Party has also jumped on this bandwagon.

A new ‘flood’ of EU migrants?

The UK government’s fears are likely to be overblown: the “flooding” is unlikely to materialise. When the UK opened its labour market in 2004, it was among just three ‘old’ member states to open up to the 10 new EU countries, which included among their ranks Poland with its population of 38 million. Back then, the opening took place in times of economic prosperity. This time around, the UK will be just one destination among many for EU citizens of only two countries, and in testing economic times. Nevertheless, despite restrictions, it is citizens from those very countries who have helped to prop up net EU immigration to the UK in recent years. Given that they are among the poorest EU countries, it is no surprise that many have shown a propensity to move.

Another factor that must be taken into account is that Romanians – and to a lesser extent Bulgarians – have already moved to the 15 countries that did open their labour markets, and particularly to those which are geographically or linguistically closer, such as Italy and Spain. Furthermore, previous experience of delayed labour market openings, such as Germany’s opening up to the 2004 enlargement countries in 2011, indicates that barely a trickle can be expected.

As for the pull factor, if demand plays even a bit-part role in intra-EU mobility, surely the fact that the UK is also suffering from the economic crisis will not result in a flood of Romanians and Bulgarians to the UK’s shores. As the numbers game is harder to play due to the above factors, a change of course in the debate has taken place: from a narrative of EU citizens taking the jobs of UK nationals to one of taking benefits from the UK welfare system. Politically, the goal of limiting intra-EU mobility is the same, but the goalposts are changing.

A cross-party consensus

With this in mind, considerations by both the Tory and Labour parties are largely a result of political strategy.

On the Tory side, the coalition government has pursued a generally restrictive strategy on immigration as promised in the Conservatives’ 2010 election manifesto. The 2010 non-EU immigration cap left free movement of EU workers unaffected, which may help to explain why the Tories want to put freedom of movement in the framework of their renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Only capping non-EU migration implies a good chance of missing their self-imposed target.

On the Labour side, despite the Shadow Home Secretary’s admission of the economic benefits of EU mobility for the UK economy, party leader Ed Miliband has changed their position on free movement of workers. Instead of leading public opinion, he has pursued a strategy of “admitting they were wrong” in 2004 and re-crafting Labour policies accordingly. This is part of his attempt to regenerate the Labour Party in time to bounce back for the next election. In government, Labour espoused a form of quiet support both for immigration and the EU. Now in opposition, Labour has spoken up: but instead of defending the EU principle of free movement of workers, it is attacking it.

Even the Liberal Democrats have not been able to secure their coalition agreement to make sure that any dismantling of the freedom of movement of EU citizens does not occur. Indeed, their leader, Nick Clegg, is now chairing a cabinet committee in charge of deterring Bulgarian and Romanian migrant workers from coming to Britain.

In the end, the real winner from this consensus is UKIP. The party’s merging of the immigration issue with its anti-EU agenda has pushed its dangerous ideas into the mainstream. A combination of the continuing stalling of the UK economy, the continual presence of immigration as a concern for Britons, and a general distrust for all things EU-related, has resulted in a perfect backdrop for attacking the free movement of workers.

The effects of such chipping away at the principle of free movement of workers for the rest of the EU are highly worrying. They are already being felt at EU level, with a possible new negative coalition of member states starting to emerge. Although many concerns relate to mobility in specific cases like the so-called ‘benefit tourism’ of Sinti and Roma, a more fundamental attack on a cherished EU freedom cannot be ruled out.

Alex Lazarowicz is a junior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author.

A dangerous UK consensus on free movement of workers in the EU