Britain has been traumatised in recent months by stories about a tidal wave of Polish and Lithuanian workers coming to the UK. Given the tone of much of the media reporting of the issue, it is hardly surprising that British support for the EU enlargement process has fallen by eight points to 36 per cent in just six months.
Such a response would seem bizarre in the United States, where it is far more common for workers to cross state lines in search of jobs. In fact, such labour mobility is a vital part of the US economy’s success.
This strange European paranoia about workers moving to find work struck me on Monday, when migration experts and regional and local government officials met in Brussels to discuss ways to help people do exactly that.
The meeting, arranged by the ALDE group of liberals, took a refreshingly enlightened view on the benefits of mobility, for the individual in search of new horizons, for the enrichment of society and – of course – to help the economy function smoothly.
To go by the headlines, one would think that Europe was awash with workers travelling across the continent to find jobs, students slaving away in the libraries of foreign universities or pensioners lapping up the sun in warmer climes.
Not so. A representative of Vladimir Spidla, the EU employment commissioner, pointed out that just 2 per cent of Europeans live and work in a foreign EU country.
Amazingly that percentage has hardly changed over the last 30 years, in spite of the revolution in air, road and rail travel and European programmes to promote mobility. It also compares with a comparable figure of 8 per cent of Americans who live and work outside their home state.
Furthermore, residents of Poland and the other new EU members from central and eastern Europe appear to be no more mobile than their counterparts from western Europe when it comes to travelling abroad.
Of course Europe’s borders are harder to cross than those in the US, notably because of the language barrier, but also for reasons of culture and red tape. But the point is – whatever the headlines say – that Europe needs more mobility, not less.
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