Can we make sense of the UK immigration debate?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Europe was relatively low on the UK's political agenda until a strong showing by UKIP in May 2013 frightened the Conservatives. The recent attempts to compromise the right of free movement will leave the UK with a diminished international standing and a poorer economy, Vicky Pryce argues.

Vicky Pryce is an economist, former Joint Head of the Government’s Economic Service and author of ‘Greekonomics’ , published by Biteback Publishing.

If the recent debate is anything to go by, it seems that immigration will be the main political issue in the UK in 2014. Not only will it be the topic on which the European elections will be fought in May but the outcome of those elections will define the agenda for the 2015 UK general elections and will hang round the neck of the three main political parties. The only beneficiary is likely to be UKIP which has played this very cleverly, fanning the flames of increasing discontent already expressed by the population following the large and unpredicted rise in Eastern European immigration after their accession to the EU in 2004.

What a sad state of affairs. Europe was very low down the political agenda among UK voters but a good showing for UKIP at the local elections in May 2013 put the frighteners on the Conservatives who are now erecting barriers for new immigrants from the EU and trying to get other countries in Europe to compromise the right of free movement, agree to a cap of new entrants, tighter benefit rules and various conditions for new countries joining the EU in the future which would restrict free movement depending on a country’s economic wealth relative to the EU average. Labour has more or less followed suit, denouncing its own policy of not imposing restrictions on Eastern European EU citizens, which led to the arrival of more than expected Poles etc. – after being one of few countries in Europe to open up its borders way ahead of others when Poland joined the EU in 2004 – despite it having been overall beneficial for the UK economy.

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader,  are each asking for restricting immigrants’ access to benefits for 2 years and 5 years respectively.  Nick Clegg and Vince Cable for the Lib Dems have rather belatedly, come out to denounce this ‘nasty’ policy of trying to impose further restrictions on benefits to new immigrants, in very emotive terms.

Romanian and Bulgarians have since January 1st this year seen the end of their transition period after joining the EU and will now enjoy full free movement of labour across borders – an extraordinary state of affairs known for quite some time now. Not to mention that those who wanted to come to the UK are mostly here already and there are now many more countries in Europe they can move to instead as we all lifted restrictions at at the same time, making a massive influx less likely. But that is something that hasn’t stopped UKIP from attempting to frighten people with visions of the entire Bulgarian and Romanian populations busy booking their one way tickets to move over here and take our jobs and scam our benefit system.

What is going on? To an immigrant like me who came over from Greece some 40 years ago to what was then a land of freedom and opportunity, the current atmosphere seems eerily odd. Many countries in the Continent have experienced considerable immigration, in some places much bigger than in the UK, and have by and large managed to deal with it. They view our mass hysteria with bewildered amusement. In truth the Eastern Europeans appear to have become a convenient scapegoat for the recent shambles in the NHS, the lack of proper planning by cash starved Councils, the problems in our schools, in transport, in the housing shortage. Yet a number of recent studies have demonstrated that Eastern Europeans make less use of public services than British people and are net contributors to the Exchequer and have helped rather than hindered growth.

Yes, the social issues need to be addressed as they have been mostly ignored so far.  It is true that new arrivals have caused tensions in areas where they have gone in large numbers such as in Peterborough and Boston in Lincolnshire. But without them many businesses would not exist and spending and employment would not have risen in those neighbourhoods.

Recent surveys suggest that people are beginning to see the economic advantages of immigration for the UK but a narrow majority want further restrictions, worrying about their own jobs, especially low skilled ones, and concerned about social cohesion. The politicians need to find a way out of this unedifying mess.  Protectionism tends to be strongest at times of serious economic hardship. And yet concern has flared up here just as we are creating so many new jobs in the UK and optimism has soared. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility spelled out a few months ago the negative impact on the UK’s growth and on this country’s debt position if net migration were to stop or even to drop  to the “tens of thousands” that the  Conservatives have pledged to achieve.

The conclusion therefore is that of course immigration must be properly managed and planned for. But  knee jerk reactions need to be avoided as they show the UK up for what it should never be – a nation frightened of its own shadow – even though it had been and continues to be, to its credit, one of the European nations keenest on expanding the borders of the European Union! The way the current debate is being handled risks leaving the UK with a diminished international standing and a poorer economic performance in return for probably only transitory party political electoral advantages.

This opinion was first published on the European Movement's BlogActiv blog, Euromove.

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