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The reaction of most current members of the European Union to the news that they will almost inevitably “welcome” Bulgaria and Romania into the EU next January is – putting aside all the diplomatic niceties – “Oh no, do we have to”. The Bulgarians and the Romanians are understandably upset about this. The Bulgarian prime minister gave a tetchy interview to the FT this morning.
Most EU anxiety focuses on the fear of mass-emigration from Bulgaria and Romania to the richer pastures of western Europe. As John Kay pointed out in Monday’s FT, the credibility of the Brussels authorities has been shredded by their utterly inaccurate predictions that there would be very little westward emigration from 10 central European countries that joined the EU in 2004.
As it is, 600,000 people have arrived in the UK alone, mainly from Poland. The “Polish plumber” – a legendary figure in western Europe after the French EU referendum of 2005 – may now be succeeded by the Bulgarian beautician and the Romanian road-haulier.
Over the next few weeks, the current EU members are due to announce whether they will allow Bulgarians and Romanians to work immediately and without restrictions in their countries. I cannot pretend to you that there is much suspense. Almost all the western European countries – with the exceptions of Britain and Ireland – imposed restrictions when the first 10 members from central Europe joined in 2004, and they will do the same again.
The real debate is taking place in Britain, which must decide whether to adopt a less permissive approach to Bulgaria and Romania than it did to Poland et al. The debate is creating some unusual ideological bedfellows. The left is normally very wary about sounding negative about immigration – and has often accused anti-immigration campaigners of racism in the past. But several left-wing journalists and MPs, including the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee and Labour’s Frank Field, have come out against immediate access for Bulgaria and Romania to the British labour market – on the grounds that the current flood of cheap labour from Poland and elsewhere is undercutting the wages of the British working class. Remarkably, the Confederation of British Industry – the most prestigious business organisation in Britain – has also called for a pause. Its director, Richard Lambert (a former editor of the FT), also worries about the social implications of what he calls the largest wave of immigration ever to hit Britain.
But business voices are by no means unanimous – and again some odd alliances are being created. Many businessmen argue that the British economy has thrived on an influx of keen hard-working labour from the east. (It is certainly easier to get a plumber in Britain than in France.) Business for New Europe, an umbrella organisation for pro-EU businessmen, has come out in favour of free movement of labour. But so has Open Europe, a well-funded and largely Eurosceptic lobbying group, with considerable business support.
The position taken by Open Europe suggests that the Eurosceptic movement in Britain is now taking a more intelligent and nuanced position to the EU debate. Open Europe is the successor to lobby groups which campaigned to keep Britain out of the single European currency and to reject the European constitution. By taking a more open stance on the very controversial issue of immigration, Open Europe has shown that Eurosceptics are not necessarily xenophobic or reflexively opposed to everything coming out of Brussels. Open Europe has also benefited from the fact that its spokesmen are not clearly insane – which is not something one could always say of Eurosceptic organisations in Britain.
So how will the debate turn out? Assuming that the normal work of British government will somehow stagger on – despite the Brown-Blair cat-fight – it seems likely that the British will bow to popular anxiety and impose some restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers.
But it should be noted that even these “restrictions” – in Britain and elsewhere – fall very short of a complete ban. First, according to EU law, the restrictions can only be temporary – they must be phased out over the course of seven years. Second, even countries that have applied restrictions to the Poles and others have been willing to issue work visas in the meantime – some times a great many of them; the Germans for example have issued over 300,000 work visas to the new member states since 2004. Finally, a ban on free movement of labour is not the same as a ban on free movement of people. All Bulgarians and Romanians will enjoy visa-free travel to the rest of the EU, as soon as their countries join the Union. That, of course, means that they will have ample opportunity to seek work in the “unofficial sector” once they arrive.