Sir Andrew Green is Chairman of Migrationwatch UK.
1st January 2014 is a date that has loomed on the horizon for some time but is now just around the corner. From that day, Romanians and Bulgarians will have full access to the British labour market. Unlike 2004, when only Ireland and Sweden joined us in opening our labour force to the Poles and others, this time round fifteen smaller EU members, plus Italy, have already taken action and the remaining countries, notably Germany, Holland, France and Austria will follow suit in January. Nevertheless, the risk of a significant inflow hangs over the Government, putting at risk its immigration target.
We predict that the UK population of these two nationalities will grow by between 30,000 and 70,000 in each of the first five years, with a central estimate of 50,000. Given that these migrants can increase their take-home pay by three to nine times (depending on their family circumstances) by moving here, this does not seem an unreasonable estimate.
What is to be done? Britain is very unusual in the EU as our benefit system is, in effect, non- contributory. This, of itself, can be a “pull factor”. First of all, therefore, access to out of work benefits must be tightened. EU migrants who have not found work and have little realistic prospect of doing so should not be granted out of work benefits or housing benefit as can be the case at present.
As for in-work benefits, EU migrants should have no recourse to public funds for five years, as is the case for most other migrants. This would require renegotiation of the Treaties and would be opposed, tooth and nail, by the EU Commission supported by a number of member states. The Commission are already challenging the current arrangements.
However, even if the Government was to succeed in closing off access to benefits, there are no powers to remove EU citizens unless they have been convicted of an offence which attracts a two year prison sentence. Put another way, those who come and are unable to support themselves (whatever their original intentions) cannot be forced to leave. The second priority, therefore, should be to strengthen the powers of EU member states to return such migrants to their country of origin. Proposals of this kind would surely have German, French and Dutch support, so they would be well worth pressing for.
The third issue is whether a limit could be placed on the number of those who might wish to come to work, many, if not most, of whom would be genuine. This cannot be done within the current legal framework of the EU. Theoretically, the government could impose a quota on the number of national insurance numbers issued to nationals of Romania and Bulgaria. Alternatively, they could require new workers to apply for a work permit and only admit the highly skilled. The European Commission would certainly take the Government to court and any such policies would be thrown out by the European Court of Justice, if British courts had not already done so. At best, there would be some delay and some migrants might go elsewhere instead, but it is hard to see the Coalition Government setting off on such a course.
It looks, therefore, as though the government are stuck between the rock of EU legislation and the hard place of public opinion, which is increasingly exasperated by the failure of the political class to get a grip of immigration.
It is not clear how many migrants will arrive in time to affect the immigration statistics in the period before the general election but there will certainly be two, perhaps three, full years of statistics before the EU referendum promised for 2017. If they reveal another huge inflow, and if the renegotiation has borne little fruitm the tension between restoring control of our borders and continued membership of the EU will become a critical issue. The political implications of such an outcome would be very extensive.