This weekend, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said, in the midst of an increasingly heated debate about the imminent lifting of restrictions on migration from his country to the United Kingdom: “Politicians should be ready to say the inconvenient truth.”
They should endure short-term unpopularity, Mr. Plevneliev suggests, “preserve our values” and “keep the history of our proud tolerant nations as they are”. Given that his words were aimed at a Conservative party now zooming into pre-election mode under the supervision of Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, they read like subtle satire.
And on the same theme, British politician Nick Clegg asked: “What would happen if tonight every European living in the U.K. boarded a ship or plane and went home? Are we really that keen to see the back of German lawyers, Dutch accountants, or Finnish engineers?” The truth is that the British economy would be in a much more parlous state if it lost the low-paid Poles cleaning hotels, the Czechs serving cappuccinos, and the Latvians and Lithuanians working as security guards.
On January 1, seven years after their countries joined the European Union, restrictions will be lifted on the number of Bulgarians and Romanians who can live and work in the U.K. Exactly how many will come here is inevitably unclear and clouded by the hysterical claims made by parts of the right-wing press, and the U.K. Independence party. The Tories are clearly panicked. Consequently, as of last week, the Conservative position on EU enlargement (long seen by the Tories as the best bulwark against political union) began to shift. David Cameron is now seemingly pledged to veto the accession of such countries as Serbia and Albania, unless there are new restrictions on the free movement of labour. Conservative higher-ups are said to be considering an annual cap of 75,000 migrants from the EU — a move that would probably be “illegal and impossible to implement”, and has much more to do with moronic electioneering than serious politics.
Meanwhile, the liberal left is reprising its mantra: migration is good for us, new migrants from the EU pay about a third more in taxes than they cost in public services and benefits, Britain has a long tradition of tolerance and openness, etc.
Yet, something is unavoidably up. According to global market research firm YouGov, in 2005 Britons supported “the right of people in EU countries to live and work wherever they want” by a ratio of two to one. Today, we oppose free movement by 49% to 38%.
The point is, millions of people will always be uneasy about large-scale change. Not because they are racist, or any more prejudiced than anyone else, but because human beings like a measure of certainty and stability. Further, it barely needs pointing out that immigration tends to impact places where certainty and stability are thin on the ground. Statistics, unfortunately, have precious little to do with this: there may be an argument that, viewed from a macro level, immigration does not drag down wages, but it seems to have an appreciable effect towards the bottom of the labour market, notwithstanding the pressure of living in a perpetual state of anxiety.
Politicians should be mindful of their countries’ “tolerant” histories, and occasionally state inconvenient truths. But they are also going to have to acknowledge that if the free movement of people has become synonymous with insecurity and anxiety, it should focus not on borders policy, but on the basics of our economy. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013