So much migration puts Europe's dykes in danger of bursting

The PM plans to renegotiate the basic tenets of the EU. He may find more support in surprising quarters, including the Dutch liberal left

Share
Related Topics

In the Netherlands, an "orange alert" is issued when the country's rivers rise to alarming levels. The time has come to issue another kind of orange alert – one that warns about some of the negative consequences of the free movement of workers within the European Union. We need to watch out: in some places the dykes are in danger of bursting.

Most of us benefit from the free movement of workers within the EU. It is important to our economies, especially in professional occupations where one can see the outline of a European labour market emerging, and the principle is rightly seen as part of the European ideal. We do not want to see this pillar damaged through dwindling popular support. That is why we, especially on the European centre-left, must think harder about how to make it work in the interests of all our citizens, not just well educated professionals.

The right to live and work in other EU countries is one of the founding ideas in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. But until the mid-2000s it was rarely taken advantage of; in the year 2000 only about 0.1 per cent of EU citizens moved to another EU country.

That changed in 2004 when the UK, Sweden and Ireland waived the seven-year transitional period and allowed immediate access to their labour markets for the new member states in central and eastern Europe. The effect, especially in the UK, was rather dramatic with about 1.5m people arriving in the UK from those countries in the following six years. Since 2011, all the other EU states have opened up too, with further significant flows from central and eastern Europe into countries including Germany and the Netherlands.

In retrospect, not enough thought was given to the scale of the flows. Up until the mid-2000s very few people took advantage of free movement because the economic levels of different EU countries were similar. Yet with the accession of the central and eastern European countries in the mid-2000s, a bloc of countries joined the EU (combined population around 80m) with income per head of only around a quarter of the richer EU states.

This has created a big incentive to move, at least temporarily, especially for those in lower skill jobs. And this has had a disruptive effect on some of our poorer and less well educated citizens in the richer EU states like the UK and the Netherlands. They are competing against people with much lower wage expectations.

In the UK, about 20 per cent of all low-skill workers are born outside the country and certain low-wage sectors such as hospitality and food manufacturing are heavily dominated by people from poorer EU countries. In the Netherlands, workers from central and eastern Europe make up 12 per cent of all employees in agriculture and horticulture.

We need a new settlement which is fair both to the people of the sending countries and the receiving ones. And we need to stamp out abuse. Workers from poorer EU countries are sometimes taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers who win a competitive advantage over those who play by the rules. Too often workers receive low wages, work long hours and sometimes pay high rents for terrible accommodation.

The Netherlands is already taking a tougher line, imposing higher fines on unscrupulous companies and appointing inspectors who target fraud and rogue employment agencies. But we need to do this together, within the EU.

Even when the system is not being overtly abused there is some displacement and competition that is considered unfair, especially when unemployment is high. Some of our weakest citizens are losing out in the labour market to better equipped outsiders. It is important to think about how we can protect the labour market situation of these vulnerable groups.

It is wrong to dismiss the complaints of those affected as the usual gripes about "foreigners". Even if such complaints are often exaggerated, we must nevertheless take them seriously; if we don't, they will fuel xenophobia.

In continental Europe, countries warn each other when their river levels rise. For the Netherlands, that's very reassuring. We're able to take timely safety measures and avoid undue disruption.

That is the thinking behind this Anglo-Dutch warning too. So while free movement is a cornerstone of the EU, as our experience of it grows we must be alert to the side effects and ready to be flexible in our response. We must not be blind to the fact that the EU approaching 2014 is different from the EU of years past.

There is a lack of urgency in Brussels on this question, which is why we strongly urge our European colleagues to put the downsides of the free movement of workers high on the agenda and tackle this issue together. If we wish to keep enjoying the benefits of free movement, we must be prepared to combat its negative side effects. This is in the interest of every EU citizen.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that “in the year 2000 only about 0.1 per cent of EU citizens lived and worked in another EU country”. It has now been changed to: “in the year 2000 only about 0.1 per cent of EU citizens moved to another EU country”.

David Goodhart is director of Demos. Lodewijk Asscher is Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Social Affairs and Employment Minister. He represents the Labour Party in coalition

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there