What Can Cameron Really Do about Bulgarian and Romanian Immigration?
by Robert Rowthorn
The temperature of the debate over immigration from Bulgaria and Romania in 2014 continues to rise. Even its starting point divides opinion: how large will the inflow be? It is said that migrants from these countries have no desire to come to the UK, but for cultural reasons prefer Latin destinations. Indeed, the bulk of migration from Bulgaria and Romania in recent years has been to Italy and Spain.
However, there may be another explanation for this pattern. Since EU enlargement in 2007, most countries, including the UK, have restricted labour migration from Bulgaria and Romania, whereas migration into Italy and Spain has been mostly unrestricted.
When controls are lifted, there will be a strong incentive for migration to the UK. Wages are much higher than in Bulgaria and Romania, and our welfare system is relatively generous to migrants. Any estimate of the likely scale of migration from these countries can only be an educated guess.
What will be the effects of this migration? For the migrants and their families, they will be mostly positive. Most will get a better job or higher welfare benefits than are available at home. The impact on the local UK population will be mixed. Many of the incomers from Bulgaria and Romania will possess the motivation and skills that have made migrants from countries like Poland attractive to UK employers. Their entry will pose a threat to more vulnerable sections of the UK labour force who will find it hard to compete. Academic research suggests that this effect will be quite small, although one cannot be sure.
Immigration from Bulgaria and Romania will affect public finances in a number of ways. Most of the migrants will be young and will find jobs, and on average their claims on the welfare state will initially be less than the taxes they pay. But there will also be a loss of tax revenue from any locals they displace. In addition, there will be migrants who settle in this country and require support from the taxpayer in their old age.
Taking everything into account, the fiscal impact of migration from Bulgaria and Romania is likely to positive, but small. Its main negative impact will be on population size. Britain is already crowded and there is a severe housing shortage. The ONS projects an increase in population of almost 11 million over the next 25 years. Bulgarian and Romanian immigration will contribute to this growth.
One uncertain factor is Roma migration. So far the inflow of Roma has been small but this could change. There are between 0.9 and 2.3 million Roma in Bulgaria and Romania, according to Professor Jan Zielonka, the author of Europe Unbound. If only a small fraction of them come to the UK this could pose a significant challenge. Historically, the Roma were a persecuted minority, having been enslaved for centuries and more recently murdered in large numbers. A recent survey conducted by the Soros Foundation Romania found that only 0.5-0.6% of Roma have a higher education – they are hence more likely to struggle finding work.
The picture is similar, though not quite as bad, among Roma migrants in Italy and Spain. Among male Roma aged 25-54 the proportion who are without employment is 33% in Italy and 46% in Spain. Roma migrants from Bulgaria are on average more successful than those from Romania. These patterns would presumably be replicated amongst Roma migrants to the UK.
What are the policy implications of all this? The government is currently exploring ways of saving money and deterring "benefit tourism" by restricting migrant access to benefits, housing and public services. It may also enforce more vigorously EU provisions for the repatriation of migrants without means of support. Such measures could in theory be effective.
However, there are moral and legal obstacles to their full implementation. Does anyone seriously believe that the government will deport indigent EU families en masse? Or deny them medical treatment or welfare benefits if they remain? The government might follow the French example and bribe indigent migrants to leave, but the scope for such a policy is circumscribed by EU law.
In practice, migration from Bulgaria and Romania may be largely beyond our control. Instead, we should therefore be thinking of how we can best adjust to these inflows, how to minimise their negative impact on our existing population and how to maximise the benefits for all concerned.
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