Bulgarians and Romanians can now come to work in Britain—but they won’tby Jonathan Portes / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
© AP PHOTO/VADIM GHIRDA The free movement of labour is one of the four freedoms of the European Union—inseparable from the free movement of capital, goods and services. Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, and their citizens immediately gained the right to travel and settle anywhere in the EU; however, most EU countries, including the UK, restricted access to their labour markets. In the UK, for example, Romanian and Bulgarian migrants had to apply for an “accession worker card” to be eligible for employment, and there were restrictions on the number of low-skilled migrants allowed to work in certain sectors. These provisions expired at the beginning of 2014. Bulgarian and Romanian nationals now have unrestricted access to EU labour markets, including the UK. They may work here just as other EU citizens can, and are entitled to welfare and NHS care. EU countries set different limits, taking into account their own labour markets. The table below shows when EU countries admitted workers from Romania and Bulgaria and from the Central and Eastern European countries that joined in 2004: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Migration from new member countries depends not just on what restrictions individual countries impose, but what other EU countries do. The UK experience in 2004 shows this clearly. The UK was one of only three countries to open its labour market immediately to arrivals from Central and Eastern Europe. The result was a redirection of migration flows from traditional destinations, such as Germany, towards the UK and Ireland. By contrast, in 2014, many countries have already opened their labour markets to Romanian and Bulgarian workers, so it is unlikely that the UK will suddenly witness a massive influx of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens. The main destinations for Bulgarian and Romanian workers have been Italy and Spain; this pattern has remained broadly unchanged for some time. Spain and Italy were the main destinations for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals not only after the latter two countries joined the EU in 2007, but even before accession. Since the beginning of the 2000s more than half of migrating Bulgarian and Romanian citizens have chosen either Spain or Italy as their main destination, and in 2009, 75 per cent of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants lived in one of these two countries. In contrast, since the beginning of the 2000s the UK only attracted 3-4 per cent of mobile Bulgarians and Romanians. In 2009 it ranked fourth as a destination for Romanians (after Italy, Spain and Germany), and fifth for Bulgarians (after Spain, Germany, Greece, and Italy). Spain and Italy are preferred by Romanians and Bulgarians because they are closer and their languages more similar, as well as because of the diasporas already present there. Networks of family members and friends can affect a potential migrant’s decision to move; formal and informal networks help when looking for housing and work and also ease assimilation. The tendency of some migrant groups to move back and forth between their home country and elsewhere—particularly between Romania and Italy, due to their proximity and the large amount of seasonal work available—suggests that some of these destinations are unlikely to be replaced. How many Bulgarians and Romanians live in the UK? While it is difficult to predict the numbers that will come in the future, we can arrive at some understanding by looking at the number of Bulgarians and Romanians that have settled in the UK since 2007, in comparison to Spain, Italy and Germany (see the table below.) In 2011 there were about 1.8m Romanians and 200,000 Bulgarians in Italy and Spain. The UK figure was less than a tenth of this: about 100,000 Romanians and far fewer Bulgarians (although comparable official EU data is not available, the census suggested that there were about 47,000 Bulgarians). According to British national insurance data, over the period March 2002 to March 2012 there were about 89,000 national insurance numbers allocated to Bulgarian nationals and about 125,000 to Romanians. The discrepancy between the EU data (presented in Table 2) and the national insurance data is because there is no requirement to deregister on leaving the UK. The financial crisis could have induced some return migration or relocation of mobile workers across the EU. In summary, there is little reason to believe that the UK will witness a mass influx from Bulgaria and Romania. Their citizens already enjoy unrestricted access to most EU labour markets, and the UK is far from being their preferred destination.