Romania Bulgaria graph May 2014

Towards the end of January, almost a month after the transitional controls had been lifted, David Cameron suggested that immigration from Romania and Bulgaria looked “reasonable”.

Before that, organisations such as Migration Watch had been painting a different picture. They forecast that, with the controls lifted, immigration from those two countries would add 50,000 people a year to our population for the next five years.

So, now that we have the figures for the first three months of this year, who got it right? You can judge for yourself by looking at the graph at the top of this post. But, in my view, the answer is… erm… well… hm… there isn’t much of an answer yet.

On the Prime Minister’s side of the argument there’s the simple fact that numbers have declined since the last quarter. In October-December of last year, when the controls were in place, there were roughly 144,000 Romania- and Bulgaria-born folk in our workforce. In January to March of this year – après-controls – that figure had fallen by 4,000 to roughly 140,000.

But a longer view does something to support Migration Watch’s forecasts. There seems to have been some pre-emptory travel over here by Romanian and Bulgarian workers, in anticipation of the new rules. The 140,000 figure for this January to March is almost 30,000, or 26 per cent, higher than for the same period last year. And it’s over 40,000 higher than for the same period in 2012. Migration Watch are today saying that this is “consistent” with their original forecast.

The truth is, though, that no-one can be really certain until the Office for National Statistics produces more numbers. It could be that last quarter’s 4,000 decline is just a bump in an overall upwards trend. Or it could be that most of the immigration happened last year; an early-bird effect that won’t continue into the future. We cannot say without a few more quarters of data.

The political parties are, of course, too bloodthirsty to wait. Danny Alexander has said that today’s numbers “give the lie to UKIP’s scaremongering,” whilst Nigel Farage is pointing towards the overall increase in foreign workers – “an extra 292,000” – and quivering that “this government has shown it has absolutely no control over Britain’s borders”. For his part, David Cameron is starting to sound warnings about his original “tens of thousands” aspiration.

If you were a Romanian or Bulgarian coming to add muscle to Britain’s economic recovery, you might even guess that there’s an election approaching.

Update: Open Europe’s Mats Persson mentions another good reason to hold fire, and one I should have drawn attention to, above: these are labour force figures, which cover “workers” only. More general migration statistics will be released on 22nd May.

Mats Persson tweet