So here’s the problem. On January 1 next year any and every Bulgarian and Romanian becomes free to work in the UK, when the employment curbs on citizens of the so-called “A2 accession countries” are lifted throughout the European Union. Yet, following the grotesque underestimate by the Labour government of the numbers of Poles and other East European citizens who would take advantage of the same right when it was granted in 2004, there is a mood of near panic in ministerial circles at the public reaction should there be a further tidal wave of immigration from the east.
The Conservatives had made a manifesto pledge to “cap net immigration”, its response to the fact that this had become, according to pollsters, the single issue – apart from the economy – which most concerned the population. Yet this pledge was an absurdity, when it was clear that there was nothing any British government could legally do to limit immigration from within the EU, which, of course, now included Romania and Bulgaria.
So, as I say, it has a problem. Never fear, some bright spark in Whitehall has come up with a cunning plan. According to newspaper reports, the Government is considering the launch of an advertising campaign aimed at discouraging Romanians and Bulgarians from the belief that life in the UK will be a bed of roses. Suggestions of the content include the observation that it is cold over here; and that out-of-work benefits are not immediately available to all new immigrants.
Must do better
The best and brightest in Whitehall will have to do better than that if they want to persuade the most miserable or ambitious people of those countries that they would be better off staying put. In Romania and Bulgaria, the only state benefit available is child benefit – of around £3.50 a week. As for the weather: my wife has made trips to Bulgaria for many years for a charity concerned with institutionalised children there, and she describes the climate as “the most unforgiving I have ever encountered in Europe”.
Anyway, the would-be scriptwriters of the public information film “Britain – not as nice as you thought” need to contact their colleagues at the Foreign Office, which is still busy telling the citizens of the “A2” countries just how crazy they would be not to want to come here. Log on to the website of the British embassy in Bucharest and you will find what our Government calls “The GREAT campaign” which, it says, is “promoting Britain as one of the best places to visit, live, work [and] study”. So what should our spokesmen say now? “Sorry, people of Romania; when we said all those things, we didn’t realise that this might actually make you want to stay here for any length of time. Just come over here to do a bit of shopping – Harvey Nicks, Harrods, that would be nice – and then dash back to Bucharest where you’ll be so much warmer.”
In fact, the Government’s concern about immigration, while being unable to do anything about intra-EU population movement, has meant it has concentrated its discouragement disproportionately on those from outside the EU who really do only want to come here to shop.
Chinese citizens wanting to visit the UK are now required, in order to get their visa, to fill out a nine-page form in English, visit an immigration authority, and have fingerprints taken – all for a fee. This might not be unconnected with the fact that currently eight times as many Chinese tourists visit France as they do Great Britain.
Visit Britain, which is trying to persuade the Government to be less obstructive, points out that the typical Chinese tourist spends three times more than the average foreign visitor; while one leading British retailer complained bitterly last week that “the Home Office has this idea that most Chinese will either go into the cockle-picking business on the south coast or go into Chinatown and never be seen again. The Chinese have a huge appetite to want to spend money here but they can’t get in... they revere and respect the UK but feel they are being treated like criminals by the authorities.”
Similarly, the Government has implemented a cap on the number of skilled workers from outside the EU that British-based companies can employ and has clamped down dramatically on the numbers of non-EU citizens who come here to study – even though the families of such young people are paying substantial sums to British colleges and universities for the privilege. Again, it is hard to avoid the impression that in order to try to meet its immigration manifesto pledge, while being unable to do anything about Romanian and Bulgarian migrants – whose likely number it can only guess – the Government is discriminating against the very groups who might actually bring the most benefit to our economy.
A big idea?
This is not an argument against the benefits that have accrued from the earlier wave of Polish and other East European labour. Only a tiny minority of them have resorted to living on out-of-work benefits and the vast majority have been energetic and hard-working contributors to the British economy. There is no good academic evidence that, in their overall effect, they have made unemployment among the indigenous population higher than it would otherwise have been, although some evidence that their presence has depressed wages at the bottom of the market, while increasing them at the upper end – a reason why the well-to-do tend to be less opposed to immigration than those lower down the income scale.
This, in turn, explains why so many traditional Labour voters deserted the party at the last election; and why Ed Miliband a fortnight ago conceded that the Labour government had “not been sufficiently alive to people’s concerns” over immigration. His party, however, has no proposals designed to address this concern, other than to tell those concerned that it feels their pain. David Cameron, it is said, does have a big idea: to put migration into the UK from the rest of the EU on the list of “competencies” which he wants to restore to domestic control, as part of the as yet non-existent renegotiation with our European partners.
He can forget it: unfettered movement of labour is one of the so-called four freedoms of the Single Market (along with goods, capital and services). There is no chance that we will be allowed to “unpick” that treaty, signed back in 1988 by Margaret Thatcher. As Ukip’s Nigel Farage will go hoarse telling the British electorate over the next few years, if the public really cares deeply about limiting migration from within the now 27-country EU, it will have to vote “out” in the referendum mooted for 2017.
For now, there’s nothing for the Government to do except warn about how wet it is here. But then everyone knew that, anyway.