Beyond the headlines of falling net migration, today’s statistics should offer some reassurance to those who are concerned about a mass influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants coming to the UK when transitional controls on their access to the UK labour market are lifted at the end of the year.
The number of migrants coming to the UK from the eight countries that joined the EU in 2004 (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) was down to 62,000 in the year to June 2012 – a reduction of 28 per cent compared to the year before, and down from a peak of well over 100,000 in 2007. Net migration (the difference between immigration and emigration) to the UK from these countries was down to 30,000 in the year to June 2012, down from a peak of almost 90,000 in 2007.
Part of this change is due to worsening economic conditions in the UK – there have been significant declines in immigration from the EU to the UK since the start of the financial crisis. But this isn’t the only explanation – indeed the numbers of people coming to the UK from the countries that joined the EU in 2004 rose somewhat in 2009-10.
In fact, the rapid declines since 2011 seem to be accounted for by the opening up of labour markets across the rest of the EU from May 2011 – fewer people from Poland and other countries are now coming to the UK because they have more opportunities to work in Germany and other countries.
In 2004, the UK, Sweden and Ireland were the only EU countries to provide nationals of new member states with immediate full access to their labour markets. But lessons have been learned from the large (and largely unpredicted) migration to the UK that followed – when the UK fully opens its labour market to Romania and Bulgaria next year, it will do so alongside the whole of the rest of the EU (indeed a number of EU countries have already opened up).
It’s almost impossible to predict how many Bulgarians and Romanians will come to the UK in 2014, but the decline in immigration from Eastern Europe since 2011 should provide some reassurance that the UK won’t be facing a repeat of the post-2004 experience – Bulgarians and Romanians who do want to migrate will have plenty of other options. In the meantime, the government should worry less about the numbers and more about how it can make sure that the UK is as prepared as it can be for whatever changes in migration we do see in 2014.
Sarah Mulley is Associate Director at IPPR. She tweets @sarahmulley