Political debate on Bulgarian and Romanian immigration in the UK

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L’année prochaine, les “dispositions transitoires” qui ont été prises lors de l’adhésion de la Roumanie et de la Bulgarie à l’UE pour limiter l’immigration vont expirer. Un violent débat sur l’immigration a donc commencé et celui-ci montre bien l’euroscepticisme croissant du gouvernement britannique. Faisons un petit point sur la situation…

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When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 he abolished the Primary purpose rule and other legislation. This was one of the toughest restrictions on immigration that had been enforced by Margaret Thatcher in 1982. The new Labour government contributed to creating a British reputation of hospitality. This reputation is due to the less restrictive employment legislation in the UK. Indeed it is easier to fire people so employers are less reluctant to hire migrants, and, on top of that they can pay them less. There are also some significant advantages for migrants that arrive in Britain, such as the NHS that provides them access to healthcare, and they can also get council housing and education services. That explains why many migrants favoured Britain as their host country, especially within the EU. When Poland and several other Eastern European countries became part of the EU in 2004, immigration increased significantly. A fact that illustrates the extent of this immigration cannot be underestimated: Polish has recently become the second spoken language in England after English and Welsh.

ImageA Polish food shop in Colliers Wood, South London. Photograph: Alamy

However, in 2005 the Labour government decided to impose immigration curbs to protect the British labour market. When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, a lot of countries in the EU feared massive immigration, which might have harmed their economy. That is why the EU introduced a law on “transitional control” of the Romanian and Bulgarian immigration for seven years after they joined in. EU members were free to conduct their own restrictions. Therefore Bulgarian and Romanian workers must have a work permit to stay in Britain. Quotas apply to low qualified workers when it comes to agricultural work or the food industry. But highly qualified workers can work if they obtain a permit or if they access the “Highly Skilled Migrant Programme”.

These curbs are to expire next year and some figures forecast a massive arrival of Bulgarians and Romanians in Britain. Tory MP, Philip Hollobone has predicted a figure of 425,000 within two years, whereas MigrationWatch has predicted that 250,000 migrants will come from both countries over the next five years. However, none of these figures is reliable given that they are based on the number of Poles and Czechs who moved to Britain in 2004. Not only Britons but also migrants who arrived earlier fear this massive immigration. Indeed, the new Bulgarian and Romanian labour force will be cheaper and Poles and other migrants won’t be favoured on the Labour market anymore.

Downing Street is thinking of different options to prevent people from coming to Britain. Indeed, they are taking into consideration a restriction on access to healthcare for Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants, and they are also thinking of sending them home if they don’t find a job within three months. Yet Lib Dems are warning their coalition partners that these kinds of options simply constitute discrimination. Consequently, they say that they have to “look at the rules for all EU migrants”. Lifting this “transitional control” might lead to further restrictions on immigration. Such measures will help achieve the official target to get net migration down to tens of thousands. In the past few weeks, a staggering idea was put forward: an anti-immigration campaign to discourage Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK. Officials said it would “correct the impression that streets here are paved with gold”. A lot of people reacted to this unbelievable idea, among them, Lucy Mangan a Guardian columnist who wrote, after listing reasons why Britain wasn’t at all as attractive as the Government thought: “who is stupid enough to think that they need an ad campaign to stop anyone coming here”.

ImageThe violent reaction of the British government, against predicted Romanian and Bulgarian immigration after the lifting of the “transitional control” next year, alarmed Bulgarian MEPs. Therefore, they decided to write a letter to José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, to denounce the discriminatory stance of the British Government. For sure, this isn’t going towards a quietening of the relationship between the UK and the EU. Cameron has decided to hold an in-out referendum if he were re-elected in the forthcoming general election. The bad British economic climate is participating in creating a ruthless anti-immigration stance in the UK, and the UK Independent Party is starting to gain a lot of power. Nevertheless, by curbing immigration, the government could harm the economy even more.

Eloïse CHERIER & Audrey HOLMES

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