The European Union is underpinned by the so-called “four freedoms”: the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. There’s little controversy over the first three. But the free movement of people has become a hot political issue in many countries, often whipped up by nationalist parties. Some people who want to keep immigrants out are racists. There are also two supposed arguments for keeping foreigners out: that they take both “our jobs” and “our benefits”.
Immigration is a particularly live issue in the UK. In the European Commission’s latest Eurobarometer survey, 32 percent of the British people questioned thought it was one of the two most important issues facing the country. The average for the EU as a whole was 10 percent.
In a poll for The Independent last month, two-thirds of those questioned thought British firms should give UK citizens priority over other candidates from elsewhere in Europe when hiring new workers – even if this meant Britain had to leave the EU. Just 16 percent disagreed. The UK Independence Party, which wants Britain to quit the EU, has heightened anxiety by arguing that there will be a wave of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria after the last restrictions on their citizens’ movements are lifted at the end of this year.
The free movement of people is one of the EU’s biggest pluses. And the number of EU citizens who engage in so-called “welfare tourism” – travelling to other countries to live off benefits – is exaggerated. However, it has become such a hot potato that it would be wise to tighten up the EU’s rules on immigrants’ access benefits. This is especially so in the UK, where David Cameron suggested last week in an interview with The Times that doing so could help sway a planned referendum on whether to stay in the EU.
First, though, look at the facts. Eight Eastern European countries, led by Poland, the so-called “A8” countries, joined the EU in 2004. A wave of migrants left for richer countries, especially the UK which didn’t impose any temporary restrictions. This was beneficial for the economy because most of the immigrants were skilled and hard-working. Most weren’t so young that the state needed to pay for their education or so old that it had to pay much for their healthcare.