Europe is one of the most divisive issues in British politics. But on one thing most Europhiles and Eurosceptics agree: that enlargement, letting those benighted former communist countries into the warm democracy-enhancing embrace of Brussels, was a good thing. Just about all respectable, right-thinking people feel that the UK should congratulate itself for opening its borders to Eastern European workers on 1 May 2004.
And enlargement certainly has been a Good Thing for the affluent property-owning professionals, as Rod Liddle observed on these pages last week. Importing a servant class of nannies, plumbers and waiters means that people like me can enjoy the lifestyle of a Victorian gentleman that we so clearly deserve.
The New Europeans are hard-working, presentable, well educated, and integrate so perfectly that they will disappear within a generation. I have admiration for their Mittel-European sophistication, a soft spot for their historical fatalism, and a weakness for their vodka-soaked parties. I grew up with Poles and Russians circulating through my Cambridge family home in the 1970s, and spent time as a teenager behind the Iron Curtain listening to wonderful young Hungarians dream of breathing free. And now they are. They are as perfect immigrants as one could wish for.
And yet. And yet. Immigration is not just about quality but about numbers. And the numbers of Eastern Europeans arriving here in the past two years have been extraordinary — far exceeding the government’s reassuring predictions. The Home Office said that between 5,000 and 13,000 would turn up, but it was wrong by a factor of as much as 60: the latest count is 293,000. Even that, however, is almost certainly a huge underestimate. The Association of Labour Providers, which represents recruitment agencies, reckons twice as many have arrived.
The New Europeans are not confined to London, though their numbers are greatest in the capital. Newsnight discovered last week that 3,000 Poles have settled in Crewe, which has a population of 48,000. Jason Canny, the head of the recruitment agency that brought them in after opening an office in Poland said, ‘It’s quite mind-blowing the changes that we’ve gone though as a town — and I’ve been personally responsible. The migrating workforce that has come into the UK is far bigger than people realise. Not just in our area, but nationally.’ And in Crewe, as elsewhere, they are coming to settle: families are being brought over and schools are filling up with sparky Eastern European kids. One Catholic school in Crewe ended up with 23 extra Polish pupils. So much for the government’s oft-repeated claim that they are just temporary workers who would go back.
The same pattern has repeated itself in the two other EU countries, Ireland and Sweden, which opened their borders to Eastern Europeans in May 2004. Ireland, with a population of 4 million, has made room for 160,000 of them in the past two years, and many of them are settling. Sweden had 21,800 in the first year. Even countries that operated a strict quota system were surprised by the response — the Netherlands set up a quota for 20,000 work permits for Eastern Europeans, and got 24,728 applications in the first year alone.
Opening the borders on this scale between a wealthy part of the world and a comparatively poor one is unprecedented, but none of what has happened should be a surprise. With wages up to five times higher in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe, and unemployment of up to 20 per cent in the former communist countries, you’d have to be stupid not to move West to improve your lot. And these people ain’t stupid. On top of all the legitimate Eastern Europeans from the enlarged EU, the open border mania has let in lots of less legitimate immigrants, from Russian mafia bosses to Kosovan and Albanian gangs, which have transformed parts of London and allowed the police to argue for ever bigger budgets. And the opening up of Europe has much further to go: in less than a year the government plans to give the right to live and work in the UK to the 30 million people of Bulgaria and Romania, followed within ten years by the people of Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia — and then 70 million Turks.
You will not read about any of this in a European Commission report on the subject of immigrants from the East due out on 7 February. The report, officials have made clear to me, will be unabashed propaganda about the unqualified success it has been for the UK, Ireland and Sweden — dismissing any claims of floods of new arrivals. It will be aimed at persuading those 12 of the 15 old EU member states that imposed a two-year ban on Eastern Europeans to open up their borders. Their restrictions are up for review by 1 May, and at most they will only be allowed to keep them in place until 2011. The EU’s border wars are the subject of intense lobbying between old and new member states, and already Finland, Spain and Portugal have indicated they will drop their barriers. France, Germany and Austria, however, are certain to remain firm for a few years longer.
The Commission will point out that there has been only a trickle of Eastern Europeans to France, but will not make the point that this merely shows how well France’s ban has worked. It will also triumphantly point out that only a handful of Eastern Europeans claimed benefits in the UK, while failing to point out that that probably had something to do with the fact that the UK banned them from doing so. From the Commission’s point of view, open borders make sense. On balance, they clearly bring benefits to the EU as a whole, not least for the Eastern Europeans who are allowed to improve their lot. But just because it is a benefit for the EU as a whole does not mean it is a benefit for the UK, or all who reside within her.
Immigration creates not just the winners we always hear about, but also losers, whom we prefer not to discuss. While the UK’s media-political-business elite may benefit from cheap Eastern European labour, there are many others who have legitimate gripes. Last summer’s industrial dispute at Gate Gourmet, the British Airways caterer, was provoked by fears that existing workers were about to be got rid of and replaced by cheaper Eastern Europeans. Those at risk were mainly Asian women, already at the bottom of the pile: the last wave of immigrants threatened by the latest one. Ireland and Sweden have their own Gate Gourmets — the Irish ferries and a Swedish construction company — which created national scandals by trying to use imported cheap labour to displace local workers.
The effect on wages of the wave of immigration is not just confined to a few sectors. The Bank of England, in its August quarterly inflation report, examined the high level of immigration and its impact on the labour market, and concluded that ‘migration could help explain some of the recent weakness in wages’. Now low wage inflation is usually presented as a boon, but you may not feel that if it is you experiencing the low wages.
After the doors to Eastern Europe were opened, unemployment in the UK started rising — admittedly from a very low base — up 121,000 in the last year. The hardest hit are the most vulnerable, with the number of those unemployed for more than six months having risen by 66,000, and the number of 18–24-year-olds out of a job by 53,000. John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, said that competition from Eastern Europeans was making it difficult for the unemployed to move back into the labour market: ‘When it comes to recruitment, benefit claimants, many of whom are not immediately job-ready, are losing out to other jobseekers, in particular growing numbers of immigrant workers.̵ 7; One construction industry source admitted that they have cut training schemes because they can get workers ready trained from the East. Even Polly Toynbee, who previously spilt a few barrels of ink denouncing critics of mass immigration as racists, claimed in the Guardian, ‘Cheap labour provides more cheap services for the rich ...while nailing an ever-larger swath of the workforce to the minimum wage floor.’ The government insisted we needed the Eastern Europeans to fill the half a million job vacancies, but vacancies are still at that level. The government claimed we needed the immigrants to pay for our pensions in our aging society, but the head of the government’s own pension commission, Adair Turner, disagrees, claiming this week that in the UK ‘there is no insoluble pension crisis, nor huge and wide-ranging challenges arising from an aging society, nor a need for increased immigration to provide sufficient numbers of future workers’.
Instead it boosts our population, which, in a country already as congested as Britain is, has clear drawbacks. And as the great East–West migration gives us a demographic uplift, it is pushing aging Eastern European countries over the demographic brink: the Baltic states are alarmed at the pace their rural communities are collapsing as their youngsters head West.
You won’t get any serious politician in Britain admitting any of this, or any of our politically correct unions campaigning against it, but the Irish are made of sterner stuff. Pat Rabbitte, the Labour party leader, is riding high in the polls after showing how native workers are being undercut, and calling for the re-introduction of work permits for Eastern Europeans — the way things were before EU enlargement. A poll this week in the Irish Times showed that 78 per cent wanted to re-impose restrictions on Eastern Europeans.
The Irish Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union has started warning of the problems, with its head of research, Manus O’Riordan, producing a stream of statistics showing how wages in areas such as construction and manufacturing are now falling in real terms. The average hourly earnings of an electrical machine operator have dropped 13 per cent in just the last year, for example. Immigrants now make up a third of the construction industry workforce, where use of self-employed contractors by building companies has jumped 27 per cent as they seek to avoid paying pensions.
I am in favour of the most open borders possible, so long as they don’t lead to a sustained one-way population flow. Allowing French entrepreneurs to work in Britain and British pensioners to lounge in Provence is good for us all. But even economic liberals like me have to accept that there are limits to open borders between rich countries and poor ones, which remove the congruence between a government and its labour force, and can destroy a country’s willingness to accept responsibility for its own workers. There is a fundamental difference between free movement of people and free movement of goods: the economy is there to serve the people, not vice versa.
Anthony Browne is Europe correspondent for the Times.