Analysis: U.K. Limits EU Immigration

Analysis: U.K. limits EU immigration
United Press International

LONDON, Aug. 31 (UPI) — The British government plans to limit immigration from Bulgaria and Romania upon their accession to the European Union in 2007, according to reports Thursday. The news came amid warnings that Britain is facing serious social issues as a result of EU immigration.

An anonymous Cabinet minister quoted in the Guardian newspaper said a work permits system would be implemented to stem the numbers of immigrants coming to Britain. The Home Office did not deny the story but maintained no decision had yet been taken.

The government has been under increasing pressure to impose restrictions following its decision to allow unlimited immigration from the eight new member states which joined the bloc in May 2004. Britain was one of just three countries in Europe which did not set limits, and has since seen an unexpectedly large influx of immigrants from eastern and central European states.

Earlier this month, Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said some 600,000 immigrants from Poland and the seven other new member states had come to work in Britain since May 2004, a figure far outstripping initial predictions. The government had previously estimated that just 15,000 people a year would come to work in Britain from the new member states.

At present, there are few indications that the migration flow will slow down any time soon, with more than 50,000 registering to work in Britain between March and June this year.

While the government insists that EU migrants are boosting the economy and making few demands on the welfare system, concerns have been raised about the strain that such a rapid inflow is putting on public services and local communities.

In total, almost 1.5 million non-Britons were granted the right to live and/or work in the country since May 2004, representing a significant population increase in a country with just 60 million inhabitants.

It is feared that high levels of poverty in Bulgaria and Romania – the latter being the poorest country yet to join the EU – may fuel a rapid and substantial flow of migrants to Britain. Both are due to become members on January 1, subject to agreement by the European Commission in September. Department for Work and Pensions research indicates a strong link between the poverty of an EU accession state and the likelihood of its citizens to travel to Britain in search of work.

According to the lobby group Migration Watch, estimates suggest that up to 80,000 Bulgarians and 200,000 Romanians would seek work in Britain in the first 20 months.

The work permit system would be similar to the points-based scheme used for non-EU migrants, which takes into account university education, professional qualifications and potential earning power.

The Guardian says the plans are supported by the Department of Work and Pensions, the Home Office and the Treasury, but have not yet been discussed by the Cabinet.

However ministers are understood to believe that in the current climate, with mounting public anxiety over security, multiculturalism and social cohesion, there will be little political support for allowing Bulgarians and Romanians a free right to live and work in Britain.

The newspaper quotes the unnamed Cabinet minister saying: “We have a strong record on accepting migrants from Europe, but sometimes politics has to override the economics and that is what is going to happen in this case.”

Few migrants are expected to meet the skills criteria necessary to be granted the work permits, the report suggests.

The news came just hours after the head of the Commission for Racial Equality warned that the growth in the number of immigrants coming to Britain from eastern Europe had presented “major new issues” for the established population.

Speaking at the Royal Geographical Society, Trevor Phillips challenged ministerial claims that eastern European immigrants were filling jobs that Britons did not want.

The latest wave of immigrants was highly-educated, young and child-free, he said, and was competing with the established population for better employment.

“The upside is that this is largely dependent-free migration; but it is socially significant — an influx of young men or young women will change any community,” he said.

He insisted that immigrants were necessary to sustain the workforce, but added: “In this new world of more rapid immigration, coupled with an unprecedented threat to global security, we cannot continue to pretend that there are no costs faced by our changing communities.”

Phillips, who last year provoked a storm of controversy when he claimed that Britain was “sleepwalking to segregation,” warned that divisions between communities were widening. Britain was verging on “unacceptably high” ethnic polarization in some areas, he said.

“Separateness tends to encourage inequality of treatment,” he continued. “Living separately means that different groups of people have their experiences defined by their ethnicity rather than their ambitions. We know that the more we allow people who live here to feel they do not belong to this society the higher the risk of their taking hostile action against it.”

However Phillips also cautioned ministers against “policy-making by panic.”

“In recent weeks, the newspapers and the airwaves have been full of chatter about the potential consequences of the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU,” he said. “Set that noise against the background of public anxiety about terrorism inspired from abroad but executed at home and you have a recipe for policymaking by panic.”

Moves to curb immigration from Romania and Bulgaria will likely be seen as hypocrisy by central and eastern European states, which are not subject to the same rights as the original 15, mostly western European, members.

While the citizens of established EU states are allowed to live and work anywhere in the bloc, members can place curbs on the free movement of labor from new accession states for up to seven years. There is a substantial danger that this distinction could create a de facto division along both geographical and social lines, in which citizens of eastern Europe are viewed as an underclass with fewer rights than those of the west.

Romanian President Traian Basescu said Thursday that it was unacceptable that new member states were effectively treated as second-class citizens within the EU. In an interview with the International Herald Tribune, he warned that if member states chose to apply restrictions, Romania would impose similar measures to citizens from that country.

“Labor force mobility is part of the idea of joining the European Union,” he said. The debate was being generated not by realities on the ground but by political interests, he added.