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Migration: The next frontier in the UK debate on Europe?

25 Apr 2013

Following a decade of large inflows of migrants into the UK, combined with a sustained period of economic stagnation, public opinion in Britain has hardened against immigration. It is now a leading concern of voters and a prominent issue on the political agenda. Attention has shifted in 2013 to migrants from within the European Union, which could have implications for the free movement of people within the Union, as well as the UK’s already troubled relationship with the EU.

‘Bringing immigration back under control’

Record levels of immigration in the 2000s generated a significant backlash among the British electorate. In 2010, the figure for net migration was at a record high of 252,000 (591,000 immigrants less 339,000 emigrants). Immigration was an important and divisive issue in the 2010 general election. In their election manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to reduce net migration back to the levels of the 1990s – ‘tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands’ – by the end of this Parliament. While this pledge did not make it into the Coalition’s Programme for Government, it remains a guiding mantra of Conservatives in government. 

Since it has little to no control over the number of Britons choosing to leave the UK, or the number of EU citizens moving to the UK, the Government initially focused on non-EU immigration to try to reduce the figure for net migration to below 100,000 by 2015. Measures introduced included reducing the number of international students coming to British universities. The Government’s effort has met with some success. Net migration fell to 163,000 by June 2012, driven by a 17% drop in the number of foreign students arriving in the UK. Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister, declared that the UK is ‘bringing immigration back under control’.

However, the UK Government’s tightening of immigration policy has not been without controversy. A stricter visa policy for non-EU nationals has been criticised as contradicting the government’s efforts to drive economic growth because it discourages international students, tourism and closer commercial relations with emerging economies. The Commons Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills has urged the Government to change its policy towards international students because discouraging them from studying in the UK is damaging the ‘export success story’ of UK universities.

Divisions also emerged in cabinet when Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, condemned the target of reducing net migration because of the ‘enormous damage’ it could cause to the economy. In March 2013, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was forced to shelve plans to restrict visas for Brazilian visitors to the UK due to concerns that such a move would damage relations with an important economy that has been singled out by the government as a key trading partner for Britain.

Despite the significant reduction in net migration since 2010, and the warnings from business stakeholders that targeting immigrants is misguided, the British public remain very concerned about this issue. In December 2012, a Eurostat survey showed that the British are more worried about immigration than citizens of any other EU country. In response to a YouGov poll, 67% of the public agreed that the high level of immigration over the last decade has been a bad thing for Britain. Respondents regarded immigration as the second most important issue facing the country after the economy. Faced with opposition to the crackdown on non-EU immigration, as well as continuously high public anxiety on the issue, politicians have now turned their attention to immigration from other EU states.

‘The elephant in the room is the EU’

The debate on immigration of EU citizens has intensified since the start of this year because of fears that the number of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania will surge when transitional labour controls on those two countries are lifted in 2014. When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, several EU countries availed of their right to impose temporary controls for a maximum period of seven years on the number of workers from the two new Member States. Ireland lifted its restrictions on labour market access for Bulgarians and Romanians in July 2012. The Department of Justice announced at the time that it received an annual average of less than 450 applications for work permits from Bulgarian and Romanian nationals. Of those, an average of 350 were granted annually. In this context, the Department considered the rationale for maintaining restrictions on labour market access ‘questionable’. The UK has not lifted its controls but is required by EU law to allow full and unrestricted access for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals from January 2014.

In January 2013, a group of more than 100 Tory backbench MPs called on the Government to ‘test the limits of the existing arrangements’ at EU level in order to reduce immigration from Europe. They suggested that existing free movement rules that give EU citizens access to benefits and social security should be changed. They proposed that this could be achieved by building an alliance of like-minded Member States ‘opposed to the Commission’s meddling in domestic social security rules’. They included Ireland in this potential alliance. Another proposal from this group is to amend the Free Movement Directive (Directive 2004/38/EC) so that the UK would have greater discretion to prevent European nationals who are economically inactive from being entitled to prolonged periods of social assistance. A final recommendation is to increase the threshold for automatic eligibility for permanent residence from five to ten years.

A number of statements from Conservative cabinet members indicate that concerns about mass immigration from Bulgaria and Romania are shared at government level. Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, warned in January 2013 that an influx of Romanian and Bulgarians could make Britain’s housing shortage even worse. Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said in February that ‘people shouldn’t use the free movement rules just to travel around, looking for the best benefits they can get’. On 5 March 2013, in a House of Commons debate, Duncan Smith said that the number of EU migrants claiming benefits in Britain had become a ‘crisis’ and confirmed that he is working to ‘tighten up our arrangements’. Later that month, the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, claimed that immigrants not entitled to free healthcare in the UK have ‘clogged up’ accident and emergency units across the country.

In response to increasing pressure from backbenchers, Prime Minister Cameron set up a ministerial cabinet committee to examine potential measures to make it more difficult for Romanians and Bulgarians to access Britain’s social welfare system. However, his insistence that the UK will not be a “soft touch” on EU immigration has not placated backbenchers. Nicholas Soames (Conservative MP) and Frank Field (Labour MP), the Co-Chairmen of the Cross Party Group on Balanced Migration, stated on 28 March 2013 that immigration is at ‘unsustainable levels’ and that the EU, which accounts for one third of net migration, is ‘the elephant in the room’. They go so far as to question the principle of free movement of people within the EU: ‘Another area that needs to be considered is whether EU members should have powers, during periods of high unemployment, to restrict the free movement of labour at present guaranteed in EU law.’

‘They’re coming to play on our pitch now’

These developments at government level came in the context of an aggressive campaign by the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) on the threat of mass immigration from Bulgaria and Romania. Linking the party’s raison d’être – withdrawal from the EU – with the issue of immigration, Ukip leaflets distributed since the start of 2013 claim that: ‘Next year, the EU will allow 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK’. This strategy has coincided with a surge in the party’s popularity. On 28 February 2013, Ukip’s candidate came second in the Eastleigh by-election, ahead of the Conservative and Labour candidates, with 27.8% of the vote. A number of polls in March 2013 showed Ukip’s support increasing to its highest ever levels. 

Ukip’s increasing popularity among voters has alarmed the three traditional parties, who have all responded by putting immigration firmly on their agenda. On 6 March 2013, Ed Miliband delivered his party’s first ever immigration-focused political broadcast. This followed his admission in June 2012 that Labour ‘got it wrong’ on immigration when in government and should not have allowed unrestricted access to the UK for citizens of the new EU states in 2004. In March 2013, he said that low-skilled migration has been too high and needs to be reduced: ‘That means the maximum transitional controls for new countries coming in from Eastern Europe’. The next day, the shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, outlined Labour’s “One Nation” approach to restrict access to welfare benefits for new European migrants coming to Britain. This included the proposal to open talks in Europe to end the provision that requires family benefits, such as child benefit, to be paid for family members that live abroad.

On 22 March 2013, Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, marked his party’s shift on immigration by dropping the Liberal Democrat proposal of offering illegal immigrants who have been in the UK for over ten years the opportunity to apply for citizenship. He also backed the idea of security bonds, whereby visa applicants from high-risk countries would provide a cash guarantee that would be repaid on leaving the UK. This proposal is a variation of one put forward by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, a few weeks earlier. May suggested that the bond would be refunded if visitors had not used British health or social services during their stay.

Finally, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a major speech on immigration on 25 March 2013. He outlined a package of measures aimed at ending the “something for nothing” culture of Britain’s immigration system. He announced that immigrants in Britain, including those from other European countries, will be denied places on social housing lists unless they have worked in the UK for at least two years. Cameron outlined that EU nationals would not be allowed to claim jobseeker’s allowance after six months unless they can prove that they have a genuine chance of finding work, including the ability to speak English. He also said that the UK would take forward negotiations with European partners to explore whether economically inactive migrants could be made the responsibility of their home country and whether child benefit paid towards the upkeep of children living abroad could be limited.

Despite the three main parties taking action on the issue of immigration in the past few weeks, Ukip remains the most trusted political party to deal with the issue. Nigel Farage MEP, leader of Ukip, believes that the main parties have now been drawn on to Ukip’s traditional policy terrain: ‘They’re coming to play on our pitch now’.

‘Abuse of free movement isn’t just a UK problem’

At European level, the UK is already in dispute with the European Commission over rules governing access to benefits. In 2004, the UK tightened its habitual residence test for people claiming social security benefits with the introduction of a right to reside test. This effectively means that non-British and non-Irish EU nationals cannot claim certain benefits (including child benefit, child tax credit, state pension credit and jobseekers’ allowance) until they have been in the UK for five years. The Commission expressed its unhappiness with this test in September 2011 and took the view that it breaches EU rules giving all citizens equal rights. Discussions are continuing on the issue. The Commission argues that EU-wide habitual residence rules are sufficiently strict to prevent “benefits tourism” and the UK is imposing an additional test that discriminates against non-UK EU nationals. The UK disagrees and the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has accused the EU of trying to take control of a national competence.

As this dispute simmers, the UK is seeking reform at European level to limit access to basic social benefits for foreign nationals. A sign that its campaign is gaining momentum came on 7 March 2013 when the UK, together with Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, sent a joint letter to the European Commission demanding that it address their concerns and review the rules that permit EU migrants to engage in “benefit tourism”. Theresa May stated on this occasion that ‘Abuse of free movement isn’t just a UK problem and it will take the joint efforts of all our EU partners to tackle it’. On 23 April 2013, the four countries sent a similar letter to Minister Alan Shatter, current President of the Justice and Home Affairs Council. The Commission, however, has rejected demands for reform. Commission officials argue that there are already measures in place to deport foreign citizens who abuse a country’s welfare system and that Member States have not been able to provide any evidence that EU nationals are abusing free movement rules to claim benefits.

On this point, the European Commission has a stronger case because there is in fact scant evidence of widespread “benefits tourism” in the UK or in other EU Member States. Jonathan Portes, Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) in the UK, has pointed out that all of the evidence gathered by his institute, as well as other independent studies, suggests that ‘migrants – especially migrants from the new EU member states – are net contributors to the public purse, not a drain’. NIESR research has found that migrants impose less than proportionate costs on the health and education systems of the UK and that “benefit tourism” does not appear to be a significant economic problem. At the European level, academic research on nineteen European countries over a period of fifteen years demonstrates that there is no correlation between levels of unemployment benefit and immigration from other EU countries. The authors conclude that the debate on “benefits tourism” is therefore ‘misguided and not based on empirical evidence’.

‘We must avoid an “arms race of rhetoric” on immigration’

Empirical evidence notwithstanding, the British debate on immigration – including from within the EU – shows no sign of abating. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband have distanced themselves from the more radical proposals emanating from the back benches of the House of Commons by stressing the benefits of the EU’s principle of free movement to the UK and its citizens. However, this could change after local elections on 2 May 2013, when about 2,500 local council seats in England and Wales will be contested. Ukip has already attracted more than twenty local council defectors from the Conservative Party since the beginning of 2013. A further surge for Ukip in the upcoming local elections could determine the UK’s political agenda for the rest of the year and make it more tempting for the bigger parties to reconsider their position on the principle of the free movement of people within the EU.

The debate on immigration is taking place against the backdrop of the much broader debate on the UK’s long-term membership of the EU. Ukip has very clearly linked the two issues in recent months so that a hardening of public opinion on immigration is likely to feed in to negative attitudes to the UK’s membership of the EU. This debate is also occurring in parallel to the UK’s balance of competences review, which is examining the different competences held at European and Member State level with a view to determining if powers are exercised at the optimum level within the EU. As part of the second semester of the review, which is due to begin in Spring 2013, the Home Office will call for evidence on the Internal Market (free movement of persons), and Asylum and Immigration. This work, according to Foreign Secretary, William Hague, will ‘help inform decisions on Britain’s future path in Europe’.

On the other hand, as Yvette Cooper pointed out in her 7 March 2013 speech, the immigration issue is also indirectly linked to the proposal to opt out en masse of the EU’s police and criminal justice cooperation measures in 2014. Theresa May has indicated that the government’s ‘current thinking’ is to exercise its opt-out of over 130 crime and justice measures before negotiating to opt back in to those deemed to be in the national interest. These measures do not concern EU immigration or asylum law, but the list of laws subject to the block opt-out includes those establishing the EU’s judicial and policing agencies – Eurojust and Europol – and databases to share criminal records between Member States. The UK has participated in a number of operations coordinated through Eurojust and Europol that have led to arrests of individuals involved in human trafficking and illegal immigration into the UK. Opting out of such measures may be more politically difficult for the Government to justify as it simultaneously promises to crack down on illegal immigration and better control the flow of people across the UK’s borders.


As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.


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