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.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.