Jonathan Jones

Briefing: Immigration from Bulgaria and Romania

Briefing: Immigration from Bulgaria and Romania
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What's changing?

Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union on 1 January 2007. This gave their citizens the freedom to travel unrestricted within the EU, but countries were allowed to impose transitional controls on their freedom to work for up to seven years. In 2004, when eight other east European countries (the 'A8') joined the EU, the Labour government decided not to impose such restrictions, but this time they did. Those controls must be lifted by 1 January 2014.

What are the transitional controls?

At the moment, Bulgarian and Romanian citizens can only come to work in the UK if they have a permit and: they work in the agriculture or food processing sectors — the number of such workers is capped at 21,250 a year and they only have the right to work for up to six months; they have been recruited for a skilled job for which they are qualified and no suitable British candidate can be found; they have a 'particularly high level of skills and experience'; they are studying in the UK and work part-time for up to 20 hours a week.

How does that compare to other countries' controls?

Most other EU countries also imposed requirements for work permits, limited to occupations suffering worker shortages. But ten did not: seven of the A8 countries plus Finland, Sweden and Cyprus. Many of those who did impose restrictions — including Ireland, Italy and Denmark — have already lifted them, and others — including Germany, France and the Netherlands — have relaxed them. Spain lifted its controls in 2009, but then reimposed them on Romanians only in 2011. Only two countries have maintained their initial restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians: the UK and Malta.

How will it affect immigration?

Simply put, we don't know. Or, in the words of the government's independent Migration Advisory Committee:

'All other things being equal, lifting the restrictions would almost certainly have a positive impact on migration inflows to the UK from those countries. At one extreme the effect could be small (with the additional annual inflow being in the hundreds or low thousands, for instance) but it could be significantly higher. It would not be sensible, or helpful to policymakers, for us to attempt to put a precise numerical range around this likely impact.'

As James and Isabel have reported, the government has heeded this advice. As Isabel's Home Office source said:

'There are no Home Office figures in terms of a projection of the numbers because there’s not really very much point in guess work about this because it really is just guess work.'

But that hasn't stopped others from having a go. In December, Conservative MP Philip Hollobone said:

'we can expect three times more Romanians and Bulgarians than are currently resident in this country, an increase of some one third of a million over present levels, possibly within two years.'

This is a very dubious claim, assuming that since the number of A8 citizens in the UK (1.1m) is about 1.5 per cent of the total population of those countries (22.8m), the number of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK will also rise to 1.5 per cent of their populations (28m). On Hollobone's maths, the increase would be about 270,000, which he rounds up to a third of a million. Where he gets the 'possibly within two years' from is a mystery — it has taken eight years for those 1.1m A8 citizens to arrive.

Meanwhile, Migration Watch has come up with a lower guesstimate:

'Our view is that [Romanian and Bulgarian migrants] are likely to add between 30 and 70,000 to our population in each of the next five years of which about half will appear in the immigration statistics. So our central estimate is 50,000 a year or 250,000 in five years.'

But it should be stressed that this is just — as the Home Office would say — guess work, based largely on an assumption that current rates 'could double or even treble'.

What happened with the A8?

  • Net migration from the A8 countries averaged 49,000 a year from 2004 to 2011.
  • On average, more than 200,000 National Insurance numbers have been issued to A8 citizens every year, for a total of 1.7 million since they joined the EU (1 million of them to Polish nationals). In 2003, just 17,000 were issued to workers from those countries.
  • The number of A8 nationals living in the UK has risen from 125,000 in 2004 to 1,038,000 in 2011 — an increase of 913,000 (730 per cent). Two thirds of the increase is accounted for by Polish nationals, whose number rose from 69,000 to 687,000.
  • The number of A8 nationals working in the UK has risen from 52,000 in 2004 Q1 to 658,000 in 2012 Q3 — an increase of 606,000 (1165 per cent).
  • So will Romanians and Bulgarians move here at similar rates from the start of next year? There are some reasons to think so, but also some to suspect that the numbers will be considerably smaller. Here are a few of factors that might influence them:


    At 21.4 million, Romania's population is a little over half of Poland's, and double those of Hungary and the Czech Republic. Bulgaria's population is 7.3 million, smaller than Hungary and the Czech Republic but larger than Slovakia. The two countries' combined population is therefore 27.8 million – 39 per cent of the total population of the A8 in 2004 (73.0 million).


    Bulgaria and Romania are the poorest countries in the EU. Romania's GDP per capita (based on purchasing-power-parity, so accounting for differing costs of living) is just £9,046 – 36 per cent of the UK's. Bulgaria's is £9,972, or 39 per cent. By comparison, in 2004 Poland's was 42 per cent and Latvia's 38 per cent of the UK's.


    When Poland joined the EU in May 2004, its unemployment rate was 19.3 per cent, compared to just 4.7 per cent in the UK. This time round, the differences are much smaller: in October, Romania's unemployment rate was 6.9 per cent and Bulgaria's was 12.4 per cent, while the UK's has risen to 7.8 per cent.

    For under-25s, the unemployment rates in Romania and Bulgaria are higher than here, but again the gap is much smaller than it was between the UK and countries like Poland, Slovakia and Lithuania in 2004.

    Many have come already

    It should not be forgotten that Romania and Bulgaria are not joining the EU on 1 January 2014, as Poland et al did on 1 May 2004. Instead, they've been members since 2007 and, despite the transitional controls, many have moved here since:

    • Work permits have been issued to them at a rate of around 40,000 a year, and National Insurance numbers at around 35,000 a year.
    • The number of Romanians living here has risen from 14,000 in 2006 to 93,000 in 2011, and the number of Bulgarians is up from 14,000 to 42,000.
    • In fact, while immigration from Romania and Bulgaria since 2007 hasn't come close to the rate from Poland, it hasn't been much out of step with immigration from the other A8 nations, as the numbers of National Insurance registrations show:

      Other countries' controls

      In 2004, the UK was one of only three countries (with Ireland and Sweden) not to place transitional controls on the eight new Eastern European members. This time, we're one of only two (with Malta) not to have either placed no restrictions in the first place or lifted or relaxed them since.

      So while we should expect at least some increase when the transitional controls end, it might well not be the dramatic rise some expect.