Growing Pains

Further EU expansion leads Sir Andrew to predict a substantial flow of East Europeans to the UK’s shores, meaning that Bulgarian builders could soon be as prevalent as Polish plumbers.

By Sir Andrew Green Chairman, Migration Watch UK
The Parliamentary Monitor, April/May 2006

Romania and Bulgaria have arrived on our doorstep. Next month the EU is set to confirm their accession in January 2007. The consequences for Britain are considerable.

In foreign policy terms this is a major success. For years we have been pressing for the eastward expansion of the EU. We saw this is as the key to stabilising the area after the collapse of the Soviet Union and we also hoped that it would dilute the influence of the Franco - German axis in the affairs of Europe. We have succeeded in both respects.

In human rights terms there are also gains. Substantial progress has been made in both countries although there is a long way to go. Membership of the EU is bound to accelerate their progress. Meanwhile, the economic growth that will result from their membership will lift millions out of relative poverty.

But what about the immediate impact on Britain? Is the Polish plumber soon to be followed by the Bulgarian builder?

It is certainly possible. These two countries could add another 30 million to the 75 million citizens of the EU who already have the right to come to Britain to seek work.

There is the rub. The British government must decide whether to grant Romanian and Bulgarian workers immediate access to our labour market as they did for the first group of eight new Eastern European members of the Union or whether to take advantage of a transition period of up to 7 years. All the other major economies in the EU took advantage of this provision. Only Britain, Sweden and Ireland opened their labour markets from day one but a repeat performance would be a dangerous course to take. 345,000 East Europeans have already registered to work in Britain; nobody knows how many have gone home.

What kind of flow can we expect from these latest additions? Unemployment in Romania at 7% and Bulgaria at 12% is well below that of Poland at 19%. But their income per head is about 30% less than Poland and less than a third of that in the UK. Recent work by the Department of Work and pensions suggests that the disparity in living standards is the main driver for migrant flows to the West. This points to at least the possibility that the flow could be substantial.

Last time the government got their forecast hopelessly wrong, predicting a maximum net immigration of 13,000 per year. This time they should be more prudent and should not open our labour market until they can see what other members of the EU are doing. If all other members of the EU 15 open their labour markets to all the new member states then we should do the same. If not, we should impose a transition period of an initial two years as is our right under the accession treaties. Otherwise the government will risk snatching a domestic defeat from a foreign policy victory.

Sir Andrew Green is a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria.

© Copyright of Sir Andrew Green
The Parliamentary Monitor, London, April/May, 2006

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