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.