‘What is the problem here?’ - The new non-wave of EU immigration

Ani-immigration wave

Switzerland’s announcement earlier this week that it will impose a quota on immigration was greeted with dismay by France, Germany and other EU members. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister said the EU would need to review its relations with Switzerland because the decision would curb EU citizens' rights. But perhaps the real reason for their dismay is nothing quite as high-minded, judging by their current immigration policies.

When Victor Spirescu became the ‘first’ Romanian migrant worker to enter the UK this year, he unwittingly became the rock on which the waves of the British media’s frenzied interest in EU immigration broke. As he told The Guardian, “There were television cameras, journalists and this guy Keith Vaz [Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee]– what was he about? I had no idea. All I could think is, what is the problem here?”

As far as most of the British media and the government were concerned, the problem was the lifting of labour restrictions on migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania. Though the citizens of these countries had gained the right to visa-free travel to the UK in 2007, when their countries joined the EU, nine member states (including Britain) imposed restrictions on their employment. Employers had to apply for work permits and migrants for an "accession worker card". Low-skilled workers were restricted to existing quota schemes in the agricultural and food processing sectors. Though these restrictions were extended for seven years, the maximum period allowed, they expired at the start of 2014.

The chief concern of Britain and the other states was that there would be a massive influx of workers from these countries who would then start claiming the health and social security benefits they, as EU citizens, were entitled to. Though the British coalition government refrained from making official predictions as to the numbers of migrants expected, the British press frequently quoted a figure of 50,000 per year. Given that this number was produced by Migration Watch, an anti-immigration pressure group, some were inclined to treat it with caution.

In the end, the predicted torrent of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants did not appear. Whilst the British immigration authorities have not as yet published any figures for migrants from the two countries, the Romanian ambassador said that only 24 Romanians had entered the UK during the first two weeks of January. Similar figures were reported from Holland, another of the member states whose restrictions had lapsed. Laszlo Andor, the EU’s social affairs commissioner, suggested Britons were ‘emotional and misguided’ over the issue and would ‘pay more attention to the facts’ in the absence of a big influx from Bulgaria and Romania.

Alas, the very low number of migrants has not prevented the British government from rushing through legislation to toughen the rules around migrants claiming benefits. Under new stricter rules that came into force on 1 January, all EU migrants will have to wait three months before they can claim unemployment benefit. They will then face questions about their efforts to find work and English language skills. Only if they pass this test will they be able to claim housing and unemployment benefit, which can be withdrawn after six months unless they can confirm they are actively seeking work. There has also been proposals for EU migrants to be kept off council house waiting lists in England for at least two years, and a minimum earnings threshold below which EU migrants would not be entitled to benefits like income support. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister has also spoken of imposing fees for migrants and overseas visitors using some NHS services in England. This includes extended prescription fees, some emergency care and higher rates for optical and dental services. Mr Cameron has also said he wants to impose restrictions on freedom of movement in the EU, with new member states having to reach a certain income per head before they are allowed full access to other member states' labour markets.

Whilst the question of whether migrants to most EU countries do in fact cause any net drain on resources is far from settled, the notion that they could potentially do so has made it a very contentious political issue. The British government’s stance is in no small part motivated by David Cameron trying to appease the vocal Euro-sceptic faction of the Conservative Party, and not lose ground to (more) right wing UK Independence Party (whose leader has suggested a five-year ban on migrants receiving benefits).   

What has been conspicuously lacking in most of the ‘debate’ around the issue is the fact that member states are seeking to evade or fudge their legal responsibilities, as well as a more principled debate about what being an EU member state should mean on an ideological level.

It has been no better in Germany, where the same kinds of controversy has arisen, and with it the same adopting of positions calculated to appeal to a particular section of the electorate. Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Christian Science Union Party, and an ally of Angela Merkel, suggested that those who abuse the benefits system should be expelled. Elmar Brok, a member of the Christian Democrat party said that "immigrants who only come to Germany [to obtain benefits] should be sent back to their country of origin".  He also suggested they could be fingerprinted to prevent their return.

However, the arguments have not entirely followed party political boundaries. Another conservative politician, Armin Laschet, said that fingerprinting migrants "really doesn't fit into an open Europe". Which would be a nice sentiment, if Europe was anything of the kind.

Whether the dismay of France, Germany and other EU states at Switzerland’s recent actions involves an element of jealousy is debatable; but it is certainly hypocrisy.