Roland Rudd: We should be welcoming these new immigrants

The decision to restrict access to Bulgarians and Romanians is a backward step

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According to the latest statistics, there are over 675,000 Brits in Spain. The ex-pat community in Spain is so well established that it has its own characteristics and structure. While there has been a generally positive reaction to this migration from the UK, in the past couple of years another wave of migration has been taking place in the opposite direction which has generated a more ambiguous response.

Thousands of Poles and other eastern Europeans have moved to the UK, and made a significant contribution to the UK's continued economic growth, but this not been universally welcomed. In that respect, the Government's decision yesterday to restrict access by Bulgarians and Romanians to the UK labour market is a backward step.

A recent poll showed 66 per cent of Brits thought that there were too many immigrants in the country. Allied to this general perception is a specific fear that the immigrants are taking "British" jobs - yet this claim is not borne out by the empirical evidence. There has been no long-term increase in unemployment since the labour markets were opened in 2004. The areas where the eastern Europeans are most numerous are not necessarily the same regions where unemployment has been increasing.

On the balance sheet of the arguments, there is a strong volume of evidence which highlights the success of the migration. Only last week a survey last week from Ernst and Young's well-respected Item Club was the latest report which demonstrated the success of eastern European migration. It illustrated that the economy would outstrip the Treasury's growth forecasts for this year, and one of the important contributory factors had been the expanding labour force and the increase in migrant workers.

Since 2004, thousands of Poles, Hungarians and Czechs have come to the UK to seek new opportunities. Their influx has been market driven. They have acted as a catalyst for economic growth, plugging crucial gaps in the UK labour market. As the TUC recently concluded: "Migrant workers have filled many hard-to-fill vacancies, in some cases vital work in areas of the economy such as education, health, social services, transport in the public sector and in agriculture, construction and hospitality." Most of the workers are young and single, with 82 per cent aged under 34. Large numbers are not settling permanently in the UK, but returning home after period of work here.

It is true there are social impacts created by any wave of migration. To ignore these would be disingenuous. At the same time, an over-emphasis on the social effects of integrating large numbers of workers whilst downplaying the economic arguments reveals skewed thinking and possibly something more sinister.

By taking the decision to open its labour market in 2004, the UK, so often seen as the laggard of Europe, seized the initiative. It has been rewarded handsomely for this decision. Other EU member states, such as Spain, Italy and Portugal have followed our lead to open their labour markets. This is part of the EU's overall task of promoting a genuine single market in goods, services and people. In the current climate, national member states should remain loyal to this principle and resist the temptation to fall back towards protectionism.

As ever, the issue of globalisation casts its shadow. It is having a seismic influence on the UK's economy. As the commentator Tom Friedman points out, we are moving to a "flat world", which has seen the evaporation of borders and obstacles.

The "globalisation" of labour markets has brought huge benefits to the UK. We have been able to attract the cream of the talent from different parts of Europe. For instance, one notable trend in recent years has been the migration of thousands of young French people to the UK pursuing opportunities in financial services and other sectors. More recently, the Poles and others from eastern Europe have arrived and contributed enormously both in skilled and unskilled areas of the economy.

If governments embrace successful policies and retreat from failed ones - as JFK put it "success has many fathers but failure is an orphan" - this decision is an example where the usual rules have not been followed. Placing additional restrictions on workers from Bulgaria and Romania in relation to the UK labour market is a disappointing step. In any case, all EU countries will have to open up in seven years. Romania and Bulgaria have made a lot of progress since the fall of communism. The sooner people from these countries are given full rights to work in the UK, along with all citizens within the EU, the better.

The writer is chairman of Business for New Europe ( www.bnegroup.org)

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