UKREN blog

Monday 16 December 2013

EU migration: Still in the news, more maligned than ever

EU migration is never out of the news nowadays, and with the elections to the European Parliament scheduled for the coming May we can expect more of this in the months ahead. The ending of transitional restrictions on nationals of Bulgaria and Romania taking employment in the UK is the current reason why the flames of public anxiety are being fanned by people anxious to influence the outcome of that test of public opinion.

The latest initiative from the government came at the end of last week with its proposal to generate a tougher test of eligibility for social security benefits for EU migrants. It comes on top of a raft of measures announced back in November which aimed to prevent people who have been in the UK for less than three months from becoming eligible for out-of-work assistance.

Numbers affected 

What is now being proposed by the Department of Work and Pensions is an enhancement to the existing habitual residence test which will require people to demonstrate that they really have moved their ‘centre of interest’ to the UK and have sufficient English to get work in the national jobs market.   

How many people would be affected by these new measures? If the government knows, it isn’t telling us. What is available on public record is the number of EU migrants who have received the main out-of-work benefit – jobseekers’ allowance – at the six month point. The director of the leading economic policy think-tank, the NIESR, Jonathan Portes has set out the figures in his invaluable blog and found this to be 5 per cent. 

But what proportion of this 5 per cent claimed before the three month mark? This is the group that the government is so keen to advertise its determination to clamp down on. The likelihood is that it will be smaller than five in every hundred EU nationals - probably considerably smaller.    

The other EU story of the last week has been that of the missing Home Office report on ‘balance of competencies’ on the impact of the free movement of people within the EU. This came from an exercise initiated by the coalition government when it came to power which was intended to scope out the areas where the reform in the current balance of power between national states and the Brussels Commission.

The Home Office team invited submissions and viewpoints from the public and key stakeholders. It seems the conclusion was that the rules and regulations governing the movement of people are actually working pretty well without the need for fundamental reform.   

It seems that Home Secretary Theresa May is unhappy with the job her officials have done on this issue and has ordered that their report be held back until they’ve reconsidered their findings and come up with something more compatible with the instincts of the increasingly Eurosceptic Conservative party.

A hint of what might be involved was leaked over the weekend with the news that the Home Secretary is seeking a cap on EU migration which would limit it to 75,000 people per year. The suggestion is that this would be achieved by straightforwardly banning the movement of people from countries with a GDP that falls below a proportion of that of the UK’s. Once this threshold had been reached, the citizens of these excluded countries would be permitted to pitch for whatever part of the capped migration figure they feel they can lay hands on.

A path to prosperity for all

This seems to be an extraordinary proposal. One of the things it seems to ignore is the fact that, in the context of a single market for capital, goods and services, one of the ways in which countries catch up with the GDP levels of their neighbours is by taking advantage of rights to free movement of workers. Free movement allows citizens who have not been able to find work at home to move abroad and earn an income in countries that have jobs for them. 

This allows workers to improve their skills by participating in the workforce of stronger economies and increased savings which are recycled into investment in the home countries. For the professional classes, networking opportunities are created which improve their position in supply chains and help identify business opportunities. 

Just importantly, freedom of movement means that poverty and disadvantage is not damned up behind the restraining walls of immigration restrictions, which are as likely to produce unregulated informal economic activities.

Thankfully we can gain some reassurance that Mrs May’s proposals, even if they are acclaimed by her target audience amongst the Eurosceptics, are unlikely to go too much further in Europe itself.  A solid block of supporting countries is needed to force through the sort of fundamental reforms of the EU treaties which would be required to throw free movement on the scrapheap.   

The EU Home Affairs ministers, meeting in a European Council gathering at the beginning of December, received a communication from the Commission which reported the evidence of the impact of free movement based on data provided by 22 countries – including the UK.

This found that the majority of free movement involved individuals and families who moved because of their status as workers or business people. It found that claims for abuse of the system were often blown out of all proportion and that the systems of control and regulation as they had developed since the 1970s were holding up well.

The current heightening of public discussion about EU migration, though driven by misplaced fear and anxiety, ought to be regarded as an opportunity to set the record straight by people who welcome migration and are working to ensure that it reaches its potential to generate benefits that extend to the entire community.

2014 is going to provide us with a lot of opportunities to make exactly this case. We should be ready to grasp them with both hands.

Don Flynn

Director, Migrants' Rights Network

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