Bursting the Bubble

One Direction Immigration: the Biggest Election Issue?

14 July 2014 | by

In the centre of the Place du Luxembourg in the European Quarter of Brussels stands a statue of, a British industrialist of the early 19th century. Cockerill frequently seems out-of-place, not only because of the traffic cones, empty beer glasses and flags that sporadically adorn him (the square is a favourite haunt of thirsty Parliamentarians on Thursday nights), but also because of the positioning of the Lancashire native in the shadow of this most European of all EU institutions.

Cockerill himself could have been an early poster-boy for the success of European integration. Brought to Belgium by his father as a young man, he soon married a Belgian, set up an iron foundry and machinery plant that was responsible for creating Belgium’s first steam train, and was one of the founders of the Bank of Belgium.

The story of migrants travelling to and from continental Europe is as relevant today as it was in Cockerill’s time. Up until 2004 and the accession of ten countries to the EU (eight of which belonged to the former Eastern Bloc),  net migration to the UK from the rest of Europe was basically zero. Grumblings began as more foreigners started crossing the Channel than there were Brits leaving, finally reaching a fervent crescendo in January 2014, when transitional controls over Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants were lifted. Camera crews and TV reporters however, were left disappointed with empty arrival halls and baggage claims on New Year’s Day, despite speculation of a flood of Eastern Europeans arriving at Britain’s airports. Immigration in the EU was a key topic around the continent for this year’s European elections, and will surely be a huge issue in the UK in the general election next year.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a think tank, recently released a report on free movement between the UK and the rest of the EU. In it, they claim that around 3.8% of the UK’s population consists of ‘mobile EU citizens’ (migrants) – a figure which is much higher than the European average. Net migration to the UK doubled in 2013, rising to 131,000. At a glance, these figures may be used by some as further evidence of the urgent need to close Britain’s borders and retreat from the EU project.

However, it is the IPPR’s drill-down of sector-specific migrant employment in the UK that is really interesting. They say that 23.1% of migrants originally from pre-2001 EU countries work in high-skilled sectors (finance, real estate, professional and administrative). This is far more than the 16.8% of UK-born workers employed in the same sectors. Health-care in the UK also benefits from migration from the ‘old boys’ of the EU club – doctors as well as staff from Ireland, Spain and Germany are some of the top nationalities employed by the National Health Service.

The migration issue has, however, never been focused on older EU countries. The argument this time is that Britain is being swamped with unskilled immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, drawn to the island, if not by the weather, then by free healthcare, a single-tiered welfare system and a higher standard of living. A paper by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College London sets out to debunk this theory by looking at the contribution of immigrants from newer EU countries to British public finances, compared to UK-natives.  They found that because of their higher labour force participation and lower use of benefits or public services, immigrants from newer EU countries were actually making positive contributions to the economy, even though the UK was running a budget deficit. Immigrants from recent accession countries are “unambiguously net contributors” to the economy, while native Britons receive more than they contribute. A clear conclusion – although it may be difficult to paste that on an advertising billboard!

But, what about movement in the other direction? After all, Cockerill travelled from Lancashire to Belgium, and not the other way round. Politicians questioned on the matter used to intone that the number of UK citizens living in Europe was, more or less, equal to the number of European migrants in the UK, apparent evidence that EU freedom of movement is a “genuine two-way street”. Since 2004, no one is still suggesting this figure is balanced. Despite some good initiatives, such as a German government scheme, which recruits British apprentices to fill skill gaps while providing them with language lessons and travel allowances, the stereotypical Brit in Europe is one of over 400,000 retirees claiming state pensions while relaxing in the sun abroad. The number of British entrepreneurs and business-creators taking advantage of European free movement remains, if not unknown, then it is badly publicized. The IPPR devotes one line in its 30 page report to the subject and the British Chamber of Commerce in Brussels doesn’t see the need to gather such statistics.

All of which would not have been much consolation for John Cockerill, as his business empire was bankrupted after military scuffles broke out between Belgium and the Netherlands in the 1830’s. Perhaps had there been more European integration and freedom of movement at the time, these military tensions and the far more serious ones that were to follow could have been avoided. What is sure is that the penniless industrialist was left to wander, quite freely, around Eastern Europe until he eventually died of typhoid in Warsaw in 1840.

What do you think?