Fears Mount About Romanians and Bulgarians in Britain, but What Have We Learned from Past Enlargements?

The Coalition Government’s agenda to reduce migration will be challenged next year when Bulgarians and Romanians will become the latest EU workers allowed to come to Britain. Bulgaria and Romania (E-2) officially joined as EU member states in 2007. But the two countries are still outside the Euro zone and the Schengen region that allows free movement of workers from one EU member state to another. European integration in the last twenty years has shown that it is easier to freely move capital, goods and services, rather than people. The so-called “fourth freedom” of the EU demands the free movement of workers and is deeply engrained in the community ethos. But reconciling EU principles with national agendas has been a juggling act for national governments. UK policy-makers will be watching and waiting with baited breath in six months’ time when restrictions on 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians in the UK labour market will be lifted on January 1, 2014.

The migration potential of the Bulgarians and Romanians is huge.  Most of these are young, healthy, educated and tend to work in construction, catering, or in private households as carers or cleaners. In theory, the economic differences (e.g. wages, living standards) between Romania and Bulgaria and the UK predict an influx after the restrictions are lifted. But there are many other places where migrants could go, and recent studies predict that Spain, Italy and Germany are most likely to be strongly affected. Any prediction should be taken with a grain of salt since migration forecasting is notoriously flawed. Not surprisingly, people’s behaviour is not always as rational as economic models predict. Just in case, the UK is preparing for state-provided social services (particularly schools, housing and health) to see an increase in demand, prompting concern among some politicians and the press. Some have even suggested a negative advertising campaign to deter Bulgarians and Romanians from coming to the UK in the first place.

Lifting labour restrictions is a tricky issue for national governments in Western Europe. The arrival of Bulgarians and Romanians could be economically advantageous for their ageing workforce. But there is still a great deal of uncertainty. The UK government does not have a clear picture of how many Bulgarians and Romanians will arrive. Their inability to manage this migration (not to mention non-EU migration) could cast politicians as inept in the eyes of the public.  This time around, the UK government has learned from its experience in 2004 when it was caught off guard by the number of nationals from new E-8 member countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) arriving after their restrictions were lifted. Even seven years later, the Labour party had to apologize for getting ‘the numbers wrong’.

The public reaction to mounting immigration is equally unclear. On the one hand, there hasn’t been a widespread public backlash to immigration in Western Europe after a much larger enlargement in 2004. Also, the public seems to get used to their new fellow Europeans over time.  For instance, although opening up labour markets to Southern Europeans (Greeks, Italians, Spanish and Portuguese) was controversial at the time, no one bats an eye lash about it now. Xenophobes might see this type of immigration as more “palatable” since Bulgarians and Romanians are white, predominantly Christian and share common European norms.  Yet opening up labour markets to E-2 nationals could upset Brits more than past enlargements. Romania has the largest Roma population in Europe who could be more inclined to leave to escape discrimination. The Roma continue to be publically unpopular since they are often associated with crime and poor living conditions. On top of that, rationalizing free migration in Britain is a tall order during the recent wave of Euro-scepticism. But public acceptance is certainly not helped by the recent alarming political rhetoric about EU mobility. Brits need to come to grips with Eastern European workers in their midst – Croatia becomes a new EU member this July.

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Anne-Marie Jeannet

About Anne-Marie Jeannet

Anne-Marie Jeannet’s research focuses on the challenges of immigration to the welfare state and its implications for individual socio-political attitudes. She is currently finishing her doctorate in the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford and will begin a post-doctoral research position in the Faculty of Economics at the University of Lugano.

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