Migration within the EU – or our Freedom to Move

This post is part of a series about the UK review of the balance of competence between the EU and the Member States (and the UK in particular). For more details about the review as a whole see my earlier post.

The review of migration within the EU is being undertaken by the Home Office. The call for evidence was published in May and the deadline for responses is 5 August.

The key issue here is simple: the EU – in its founding treaties concluded in 1956 and ever since in subsequent treaties has been committed to 4 freedoms: the freedom of movement for goods, for capital, for people and for services.

The UK is one of the EU Member States who are bound by and benefit from these freedoms. Nobody is concerned about the freedom of movement for goods; we hear, over and over again, that we want the free market (which is part of this) and that we want to be able to sell goods and services in the other EU Member States; there are issues at the margins: debates about whether we measure things in imperial or metric measurements was a famous one for some time. But in essence, nobody thinks that we should have limits put on goods moving from one EU Member State to another; nobody wants to impose tariffs or other barriers to such movement.

But of course, this freedom has as much to do with jobs, availability of jobs and the well being of the economy as anyone of the other freedoms.

The freedom of movement of capital is equally accepted. The days when we had to declare the amount of currency we carried when traveling from the UK to France or Spain are long past. And who is arguing about this? As tourists it helps make the holiday easier; and for the banks and other financial services it makes big bucks – especially in the City of London. There may be downsides; the financial crisis showed that. But the principle isn’t being questioned.

Services – a slightly different story

When it comes to services, the story becomes more complicated. Because, first of all there is the question about whether we actually want especially important public services (water, refuse, recycling, power generation, postal services, public transport etc) sold off to the highest bidder in other countries. But the reality is, it’s happened, it will continue to happen, and nobody is talking about doing anything about it.

But services are not just those kind of services; a Polish heating engineer or kitchen fitter can come to Germany or the UK and offer their services; they can be registered in Poland, they can have their base in Poland; they can just come here to measure up and then to fit the kitchen. That is also freedom of movement of services. And of course, they can charge whatever they can charge in a free market and they can pay their workforce whatever is legal in their country.

Industry has found the fact that wages differ in different EU Member States beneficial; because of course industrial production has moved in the opposite direction with manufacturing moved to the countries with lower wages. It’s all perfectly legal and good for profit.

So what about migration?

So the last of the freedoms is that of people. EU citizens (and their families) can move to another Member State to study, to work, to set themselves up in business. They can also move and settle if they are self supporting.

In the EU as a whole, there are about 12 million people who are EU citizens and live in an EU Member State other than ‘their own’. That represents about 2.5 % of the total population of the EU (27 Member States). Most of them live in the 15 Member States that made up the EU prior to 2004. Within those 15 Member States the EU nationals living there who are not citizens of the country they live in represent about 3.1 % of the total population. In the UK, this group represents about 3.3 % of the population, so only very marginally above the average for all 15 Member States. (All the data from the Migration Policy Institute).

In the UK – both according to the Migration Policy Institute and the governments own information as reflected in the call for evidence to the part of the Balance of Competence Review – the total number of EU nationals (not citizens of the UK) resident in the UK in 2011 was just over 2 million. At the same time, there were 1.4 million UK citizens resident in other EU Member States.

In fact for Ireland, France and Spain, the number of their nationals living in the UK was smaller than the number of UK citizens living in those countries.

So what are the problems?

The issues the balance of competence review raises are: the Labour Market, Social Security Coordination, and Immigration.

Labour Market

The question is: do EU nationals who are not citizens of the UK but who are working here ‘take jobs from British citizens’?

The information the government publishes in its call for evidence is quite surprising. 59 % of EU migrants come here to work; 26 % come here to study (although they may, of course also work); and the rest come to join family (14 %).

The sectors those who work tend to be found in are:

Distribution, hotels and restaurants:                            23% of EU migrants

Banking and finance                                                          18% of EU migrants

Public admin, education and health                              18% of EU migrants

Manufacturing                                                                   15% of EU migrants

Construction                                                                       9% of EU migrants

Other services                                                                    5% of EU migrants

Agriculture, forestry and fishing                                    1% of EU migrants

Energy and water                                                              1% of EU migrants

If nothing else, this list is surprising given public perceptions.

Whether or not this is a problem will depend on whether there are UK citizens who applied for the jobs that these EU citizens have, were qualified for but did not get. There is no systematic research that would establish this. In many ways, the problem is made worse if there is an economic decline because there are fewer jobs around.

But we should not forget that EU migrants, if they work, also pay tax; they spend money and thereby contribute to the economy.

In short, it is far more important to get jobs into the economy than it is to get exercised about EU migration.

Social Security Coordination

It is interesting to note that the call for evidence talks about ‘social security coordination’ and not about ‘benefit tourism’. It is good to see that in official government documents rational language is used. It would be good if politicians and the media followed suit.

The short story on this is: EU citizens who live in Member States other than the one where they hold citizenship whilst exercising their freedom of movement rights have access to social security in the same way as citizens of the Member State.

This is one of the things this government has been focusing on as one of the major drawbacks of EU membership. I wonder how the 1.4 million UK citizens who live in Ireland, France, Spain, Germany and many other Member States would feel if they were denied equal treatment with regard to social security benefits.

This is not to say that there isn’t a need to look at the detail of the implications of social security benefits, especially if they are paid without means testing to people who do not actually reside in the UK. For example, Child Benefit is paid to anyone who is eligible for it both whilst residing here for children not residing here and once someone has been eligible here when they live abroad. This rule applies to UK citizens. So if a UK citizen has their family living in Spain (or any other EU Member State or any other country in the world) but they live in the UK, they get Child Benefit for those children. When that citizens moves to Spain they still get Child Benefit – irrespective of what the arrangements for any similar benefit might be in Spain.

If an EU migrant comes to the UK and starts working here they become eligible for Child Benefit for their children just like any UK citizen; if their children are not in the UK, that doesn’t affect the eligibility; if they then move back to their country – or any other country – they retain that eligibility (because this would be the case for any UK citizens and EU citizens have to be treated equally in such cases).

So my question: is there something wrong with the Child Benefit rules, or with the equal treatment of all who have established eligibility?

This by way of an example.

It seems to me that there is much scope for further coordination and simplification of social security rules right across the EU so that there is proper equality and proper reciprocity but without making benefit systems unnecessarily generous in situations where this is not necessary. And don’t forget, until recently, there was no limit on the parents’ income for receiving Child Benefit.

Public Services

Interestingly, the call for evidence does not mention the impact of migration on public services explicitly as one of the issues for debate.

There is some evidence that where families migrate to a country whose language they do not speak, there will be an impact on public services; in general, there will be a need for interpretation. However, many of the migrants will have access to community and informal interpretation. But the provision of some interpretation, the provision of information material in languages other than English, is important; as is the teaching of English to migrants in an accessible and affordable way. Teaching English to migrants may be the best way to assist integration.

My own experience of living in Belgium – a bi-lingual country where many local people speak English as a matter of course – was that language courses in large mixed groups of foreigners all of whom spoke French with varying degrees of understandable accents was not a helpful way of learning. The fact that in most situations any attempt on my part to speak French was met by a response in English was also not helpful.

What is required in the UK is learning in small groups and interaction with English speakers who have the patience to communicate slowly and with the difficulties that come with learning a language.

Schools are a good place for the children of migrants to learn English and generally children are very quick to pick up another language. But the very fact that English children have the opportunity to meet children who speak other languages may actually lead to their ability to understand better why learning languages is fun and useful. A major benefit.

Given the demographics of the migrant population, there is evidence that they tend to make less use of public services than UK citizens on average, especially with regard to health and social services.

This is not to say that in areas where there are a lot of migrants from a lot of different countries this doesn’t pose policy issues. But with adequate funding and with the will to solve these issues, none of them are insurmountable.

Far more importantly, the argument that our public services would be able to cope perfectly well if there were fewer (or no) migrants is unsubstantiated rhetoric. The fact is that there aren’t enough affordable homes, that the health service is over-streched and that social services are creaking at the edges. That is not the fault of migrants; it is the responsibility of successive governments who have allowed this situation to arise.

In response to the call for evidence:

The call for evidence, accompanied by 18 questions and a not entirely helpful form to respond to them on, is asking the public and industry, commerce, interest groups and anyone else who cares to do so, to respond and to give their experience and their views.

I have done so, and if you are interested in what I have said, you can access my submission here.

But more importantly, if you feel that there are things that need to be said about this, make your own submission. You have until 5 August 2013 to do so.

About martinaweitsch

I'm interested in politics and rational political debate which isn't afraid of the facts or the complexities and contradictions inherent in most important issues.
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