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How European migration is starting to recede

A report by Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah of ippr

In the three years since the European Union welcomed 10 new members, record numbers have moved from east to west. The scale of migration has cheered those eager to promote mobility within the EU and distressed those who fear the economic and social effects of uncontrolled immigration. Yet both cheerleaders and detractors of Europe’s newfound mobility are getting worked up over a temporary phenomenon.

There is no denying that the scale of movement, especially to the UK and Ireland, has been staggering. More than half a million new member nationals have registered to work in the UK since 2004, not including the self-employed and those who do not need to register. Poles, who account for more than half of this inflow, were the single largest immigrant nationality arriving in the UK in 2005. In Ireland, some 330,000 new member nationals obtained personal public service numbers – required to work or claim benefits – between May 2004 and February 2007. More Poles than Irish applied for these numbers in 2006. New member nationals have also made their presence felt in other parts of the EU – the infamous Polish plumber, for example – as many existing member states start to ease restrictions on movement of workers from new member states.

Yet, it is important not to overstate the scale or impact of these new flows. For a start, central and eastern Europeans have been working in western Europe for decades, most notably the hundreds of thousands of seasonal agricultural workers in Germany. A sizeable proportion of the “new” registrants in the UK said they had been resident in the UK before May 2004.

Many of the post-enlargement flows have also been temporary. More than half of those registering to work in the UK say they intend to stay for less than three months, a proportion that has been climbing since the early days of enlargement. There are signs that the early movers are starting to return home, having saved pounds and euros and learnt new skills and languages.

More striking are the trends on which nationalities are moving. Poland dominates the post-enlargement flows. Between 2005 and 2006, the numbers of Poles arriving rose by 26 per cent in the UK and 45 per cent in Ireland. Polish economic growth and unemployment may be improving but there is a long way to go before young Poles decide not to try their luck overseas.

However, richer accession countries and ones with better economic prospects seem to be sending far fewer emigrants. Between them, the UK and Ireland have received 859 Slovenians since May 2004, a per capita emigration rate 30 times smaller than the Polish equivalent. Arrivals from the three Baltic states, together the second largest group of migrants after Poles, have fallen dramatically as economic conditions improve at home (the slowest Baltic growth rate is nearly 8 per cent and the highest unemployment rate about 7 per cent).

If all new member economies improve in this manner, not only will they send fewer emigrants but they will also need to import workers. Indeed, there is no better example of this transition than Ireland.

That the westward march is not all that new, mostly circular and probably short-lived is rarely acknowledged by those who want to limit mobility within the EU in order to protect wages, conditions and public services. But nor does it seem to be acknowledged by those who want to promote mobility in order to encourage labour market flexibility and competitiveness.

For years, European policymakers have worried about the lack of geographical mobility among workers. Only 1.7 per cent of the EU population lives in another member state, whereas some 3 per cent of Americans move to a different US state every year. So pleased was the European Commission about the arrival of eager workers from the new member states and so keen was it to promote the lifting of mobility restrictions that it declared 2006 the EU Year of Worker Mobility.

As the 2004 EU entrants’ economies grow and populations age (often at a faster rate than western Europe’s), they are unlikely to make a long-term dent in EU mobility. Indeed, unless workers in existing member states show a new propensity to cross borders, only further rounds of enlargement will do the trick. Unfortunately, judging by the public hysteria over the Polish plumber, the Turkish tradesman may be in for a very tough time.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is Director of Research Development at ippr
This article first appeared in the Financial Times, 2 May 2007

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