Thursday, February 19, 2004

New ruling on EU migrants

Well, it would seem that the government hasn't entirely capitulated to the mob press over putative migrants from the new member states of the European Union. Now, every other country with the paradoxical exception of Denmark has demanded "transitional agreements" allowing them not to let people from the Central European countries in for up to 10 years (note that they felt no such conviction about trade, say), but the UK did not. Now, with two months to go, we seem to be rowing back entirely due to screamer headlines in the loanshark-influenced Sun and the Daily Express (has anyone else got a reason why this has suddenly become an issue?). Apparently, the new entrants will nto be eligible for benefits payment until they have demonstrated 18 months' habitual residence. Well, this is actually hardly news as the same principle applies to other EU citizens, except that it's only 6 months. So far, the government has not tried to keep them from working.

Now, I'm not very happy about institutionalising a Europe with first and second class citizens. Neither am I too chuffed about policy by tabloid, nor does the idea of casually ripping up treaty commitments make me warm and fuzzy inside. But if this is as far as it goes, I'll accept it as a sufficient sop to shoot the hard right's fox on the matter. Because I think that this will be seen in the future as a dog that didn't bark. A Fistful of Euros has a good post on the issue: "Several years ago, a study produced by the European Commission projected that 335,000 easterners would go west – and of these, only 35% would be employees. Another report suggested this migration would actually raise the Union’s overall GDP enough to offset the costs, provided the moves are not motivated by welfare benefits.

A spate of similar surveys have yielded numbers ranging from 100,000 to 400,000 migrant workers, which would mean that by 2015-2020, the number of migrant workers living in the “old” EU would amount to only 0.5 to 0.8 percent of the EU’s current population, according to recent report by Katinka Barysch, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform. This is hardly enough to wreck havoc on the job market, considering an estimated 0.2% of current EU residents are easterners already. And many economists, pointing to the effects of the EU’s last round of enlargement, say even these numbers are played up.

Oddly enough, this debate obscures one important fact: Many of the eastern countries, such as the Czech Republic, actually see more immigration than emigration, with workers from Ukraine and other countries further east moving there in search of higher wages and often working illegally. The EU, again fearful of a larger and more porous eastern boundary, is pushing these countries to enact higher obstacles to such immigration.."

I suspect there is empirical strength to this. In Austria in the winter of 2001, I was surprised to learn that the average income in Hungary west of the Danube was higher than that in Kärnten, and that Hungarian economists were concerned that not enough people from the depressed eastern half of the country were moving to the west. Not only that, but some border crossings had more people crossing from Austria to Hungary than vice versa. Anyway, if people don't come legally then some of them will come illegally, and they are the ones who will end up floating in Morecambe Bay.

Short reflection: why are "New Europeans" plucky, honest toughies standing up to the corrupt oligarchy of the axis of weasels when they are stagging-on round some godforsaken pipeline in south-central Iraq, but "hordes of gypsies flooding in to take our jobs" when they aren't?

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