Why is Western Europe hysterical over a swarm of criminal, scrounging immigrants that doesn’t actually exist?
From London to Berlin, the tabloids and right-wing press whipped themselves into a xenophobic frenzy as the end of 2013 neared. They warned of "swarms of immigrants," "soaring crime rates," a "swamped labor market," and "benefit tourism." Even government officials got in on the action: Lodewijk Asscher, the Dutch social affairs minister, issued a "Code Orange" alert — a warning normally issued in the Netherlands, a country prone to flooding, when water levels reach dangerous heights. In the United Kingdom, there was talk of introducing "Olympic-style security" at airports. French President François Hollande and his Socialist government called for a "crackdown."
The cause of all the panic: On Jan. 1, 2014, migration restrictions imposed on Romania and Bulgaria by several Western European countries ended. After the two eastern states joined the European Union (E.U.) in 2007, these rules placed substantial limitations on the ability of Romanians and Bulgarians to emigrate for the purposes of work to Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
Over the last decade, internal migration in the E.U. has become a highly contentious issue. The 2004 accession wave of 10 new member states, including several poorer Eastern European countries, prompted many people — estimates vary in the low millions — to move west, seeking to take advantage of better standards of living, employment opportunities, and welfare and health care provisions.
The United Kingdom in particular was affected, as one of only three countries that did not impose any migration controls. Between 2004 and 2011, more than 650,000 people arrived from so-called A8 accession countries — Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, among others — in the United Kingdom, a figure that far exceeded the government’s predictions. It was these sorts of numbers, combined with the E.U.’s economic downturn and long-standing concerns about immigrant populations, that stoked xenophobia. Ultimately, they prompted the migration restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania — countries where more than 40 percent of people live at risk of dipping below the poverty line and minimum wages stand at a paltry $1.22 and $1.46, respectively.
"The expansion of the E.U.’s borders in recent years means there is a much bigger disparity between countries now in comparison to when the European project started out," says Chris Howarth, a senior policy analyst at the London-based think tank Open Europe. "Migration is now the No. 1 concern for the public when polling about European Union membership and accession."
But the realities of European migration are far more nuanced than recent hysteria suggests. Indeed, there are misconceptions about the actual number of people letting legal restrictions dictate their movement, the true impact migration has had on the E.U.’s older states, and even how those on the other side — that is, back in states like Bulgaria and Romania — feel about the trend of fellow citizens moving abroad for work.
Before Jan. 1, estimates of the number of Romanian and Bulgarians predicted to head west varied massively. In the United Kingdom, for example, figures produced by think tanks ranged from 50,000 to a whopping 385,000 arrivals annually. Top-end guesstimates were used by fear-mongers to back up their arguments, including calls for policies to discourage new migrants. In December, Britain’s center-right Conservative Party pushed controversial legislation through Parliament to limit new migrants’ access to government benefits and health care and to enforce integration through measures such as compulsory language-learning certificates. The new rules also enable non-nationals caught living on the streets or begging to be immediately deported. Governments in Germany, the Netherlands, and France are also debating introducing similar measures.
Now, more than two weeks into 2014, the predicted flood of migrants has turned out to be more of a trickle. Warnings by British newspaper the Daily Mail that budget airline flights from Bucharest and Sofia to London in the first week of 2014 were "double booked" and bus tickets were "sold out" turned out to be palpably untrue. Meanwhile, Ion Jinga, the Romanian ambassador to the United Kingdom, says figures provided to him by Dutch authorities show that, 10 days into the year, only 21 Bulgarians and 10 Romanians registered as new arrivals in the country.
But while Europe’s right wing may have won a victory by forcing anti-immigration measures onto policy agendas, economic and regional experts say that the small number of arrivals is better explained by long-term trends and market conditions than the "stay away" tough talk.
Labor controls have in fact been steadily relaxed in several parts of the E.U. over a number of years, explains Stefan Ralchev, director and policy analyst at the Institute for Regional and International Studies, a think tank in Sofia. "Most those who really wanted to leave [Romania and Bulgaria] have already been able to do so," he says. "This mass migration myth was always a balloon waiting to pop after January 2014."
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 3.5 million Romanians — approximately one-sixth of the total population — are already working abroad, mainly in E.U. countries. For many, the destination of choice has not been Western Europe, but the geographically closer southern region, where several countries virtually eliminated restrictions for migrants well before 2014. In Spain and Italy, for example, around 1.9 million migrants from Bulgaria and Romania were already registered to work, and a further 1 million are estimated to travel to the two Mediterranean countries annually for seasonal employment.
Even in the Western E.U. states that imposed migration restrictions until this year, however, loopholes in the rules have long allowed skilled and self-employed workers to enter labor markets. The United Kingdom already had more than 150,000 Romanians and Bulgarians living inside its borders prior to Jan. 1; Germany had 200,000.
And despite what migration opponents suggest about Eastern Europeans scrounging for work and causing social problems, these populations have had actually aided host economies. Both the United Kingdom and Germany have a shortage of skilled labor in sectors like information technology (IT) and health care and thus stand to benefit from expansions in the available work force. Recent research by University College London found that newcomers from the European Economic Area stimulated the United Kingdom’s economy over the 10-year period between 2001 and 2011, collectively paying 34 percent more in taxes than they received in benefits. Moreover, a study by the European Commission found that unemployed migrants make up only a small total of those receiving welfare in E.U. states.
Arguably, in fact, the exodus of the young and talented is more concerning for those back home than it is for Western states. "The brain drain already started taking place when Romania and Bulgaria joined the E.U. in 2007," says Marcela Ganea, an academic researcher at Bucharest University. "If you had a choice between being a doctor in Romania for €400 a month, or being a doctor in Western Europe for €3,000, what would you choose?"
In November 2013, Konstantin Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, told Channel 5 News that his country is being "hurt" by the loss of qualified professionals.
Despite these realities, the furor over economic migration is not likely to die down in Western Europe. On Jan. 7, a British Social Attitudes survey found that 77 percent of those polled were in favor of reducing the number of immigrants coming to the country. Meanwhile, the debate has sparked a major political argument in Germany, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government divided over proposals to limit benefits to immigrants.
British MP and Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee Keith Vaz says that while the xenophobic rhetoric surrounding Jan. 1 is "very regrettable," migration is "an issue that E.U. governments urgently need to address" — in no small part because the union keeps expanding, most recently into the Balkans. (Talking on the BBC’s "Question Time" program on Jan. 10, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries warned of a possible future "tidal wave from Yugoslavia.")
"The public is concerned," Vaz says. "Jan. 1 is by no means the end. This is just the beginning of a much bigger, wider debate about the role and future of the E.U."