How fears over Romanian and Bulgarian immigration have been exaggerated

A new survey shows that just one per cent of Romanians and four per cent of Bulgarians have begun to look for work in the UK and most will only migrate with a firm offer.

Few subjects have exercised Conservative MPs more in recent months than the subject of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria. Today, ahead of the end of transitional controls on the countries in 2014, parliament will debate an e-petition urging the government to stop "mass immigration from Bulgarian and Romanians" (it has received 145,364 signatures). 

But will there be any "mass immigration" to stop? A Newsnight survey of more than a thousand people in each country, the first to be conducted in recent years, suggests not. Asked to pick their first choice of EU country to move to in either 2013 or 2014, just 4.6 per cent of Romanians and 9.3 per cent of Bulgarians chose the UK. When asked specifically whether they would consider the UK as a destination, these numbers rose to 8.2 per cent for Romanians and 13.6 per cent for Bulgarians. But questioned on whether they have made concrete plans to move to UK, such as searching for accommodation and employment, these figures fall significantly. Just 1.2 per cent of Bulgarians and 0.4 of Romanians have begun to look accommodation and only four per cent of Bulgarians and one per cent of Romanians have started to look for work either with a recruitment agency or independently. In addition, of those looking for work, 65 per cent of Romanians and 60 per cent of Bulgarians said they would only migrate to the UK with a firm offer of employment. 

History shows that when assessing the likely number of migrants, it's important to distinguish between potential and actual plans. Past surveys have shown that as many as 50 per cent of Bulgarians would like to work abroad but in the last decade only around six per cent have actually left. 

It has long been clear that the removal of immigration controls on the countries is unlikely to lead to an influx comparable to that from the eastern European accession countries in 2004 (the Labour government forecast that just 13,000 a year would emigrate to the UK; the actual figure was 300,000). Romanians and Bulgarians have already had open access to the UK, if not its labour markets, since joining the EU in 2007, so many of those interested in living and working in the country have already come.

In addition, unlike in 2004, when only the UK, Ireland and Sweden opened their labour markets to new EU arrivals, in 2014, all EU member states will do so. As many, if not more, Romanians and Bulgarians will migrate to Italy and Spain, where large diaspora populations already exist, as to the UK. Finally, while the combined populations of the 2004 accession countries is around 70 million, Romania and Bulgaria have 29 million people between them, limiting the potential for mass immigration. But with UKIP likely to exploit the issue for all its worth in the local elections, the Tories are unlikely to dial down their rhetoric accordingly. 

A protester waves a Romanian 1989 Revolution flag during a protest at Piata Universitatii square. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Even before Brexit, immigrants are shunning the UK

The 49,000 fall in net migration will come at a cost.

Article 50 may not have been triggered yet but immigrants are already shunning the UK. The number of newcomers fell by 23,000 to 596,000 in the year to last September, with a sharp drop in migrants from the EU8 states (such as Poland and the Czech Republic). Some current residents are trying their luck elsewhere: emigration rose by 26,000 to 323,000. Consequently, net migration has fallen by 49,000 to 273,000, far above the government's target of "tens of thousands" but the lowest level since June 2014.

The causes of the UK's reduced attractiveness are not hard to discern. The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are likely to be the main deterrents (though numbers from Romania and Bulgaria remain healthy). Ministers have publicly welcomed the figures but many privately acknowledge that they come at a price. The OBR recently forecast that lower migration would cost £6bn a year by 2020-21. As well as reflecting weaker growth, reduced immigration is likely to reinforce it. Migrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits, with a net contribution of £7bn a year. An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent.

Earlier this week, David Davis revealed the government's economic anxieties when he told a press conference in Estonia: "In the hospitality sector, hotels and restaurants, in the social care sector, working in agriculture, it will take time. It will be years and years before we get British citizens to do those jobs. Don’t expect just because we’re changing who makes the decision on the policy, the door will suddenly shut - it won’t."

But Theresa May, whose efforts to meet the net migration target as Home Secretary were obstructed by the Treasury, is determined to achieve a lasting reduction in immigration. George Osborne, her erstwhile adversary, recently remarked: "The government has chosen – and I respect this decision – not to make the economy the priority." But in her subsequent interview with the New Statesman, May argued: "It is possible to achieve an outcome which is both a good result for the economy and is a good result for people who want us to control immigration – to be able to set our own rules on the immigration of people coming from the European Union. It is perfectly possible to find an arrangement and a partnership with the EU which does that."

Much depends on how "good" is defined. The British economy is resilient enough to endure a small reduction in immigration but a dramatic fall would severely affect growth. Not since 1997 has "net migration" been in the "tens of thousands". As Davis acknowledged, the UK has since become dependent on high immigration. Both the government and voters may only miss migrants when they're gone.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.