Bulgarian and Romanian migration: “An imaginary fear”

By Fatma Yılmaz Elmas

The eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004 is acclaimed by many, especially the elites, as the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries “returning to Europe”. Enlargement is encouraged by ambitions of forming Pan-European unity, extending its influence, promulgating the ideas of the free market economy, pluralistic democracy, and democratic values, and preventing conflict between newly-independent countries. However, searching for stability inside and greater effectiveness outside of European elites via Eastern enlargement is in contradiction with that the expansion will be cause of massive influx of migrants. Since, this was the first time in EU’s history that many countries and people in this size would have joined the EU at the same time via 2004 enlargement. In the eyes of the “old Europeans”, the wealth disparity between the old and new members and the more dynamic demographic structure of Eastern Europe might cause massive migration. It’s for this reason that Eurobarometer surveys in the late 1990s repeatedly showed that many Europeans opposed to “big-bang enlargement” feared losing their jobs.


In this context, while ‘Polish plumper’ is announced as scapegoat in the UK, the enlargement is only supported as much as the degree of convenience to their own welfare projects. However, the research of that time showed that there was no certain, common, and consistent correlation between population, labor market, or migration and enlargement from the point of Spain, Portugal and Greece enlargements. Spain and Portugal even experienced reverse migration. But in the list of concerns about Eastern European immigration, along with worries about Eastern Europe’s socio-economic conditions and the scale of enlargement, purely hypothetical concerns (assuming “if it happens…”) not borne out by evidence are also being legitimized. Paradoxically, many people cheering for the CEE countries “returning to Europe” are not so welcoming to laborers seeking to enter EU welfare states. The study of J. Kvist in 2004 clearly illustrated that EU-15 countries engaged in a “race to the bottom” to regulate social policies and close their labor markets to CEE countries. This debate, which dominated the 1990s and early 2000s, has been re-kindled in advance of this year’s expiration of work restrictions for migrants from Romania and Bulgaria. The data suggests a looming massive influx, and exclusionary approaches based on a hypothetical fear are emerging across the EU and particularly in the UK.


Bulgarians and Romanians at the borders (!)


British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent announcement of tighter policies for immigrants at the end of March drew attention to the fact that as of January 2014, Bulgarian and Romanian citizens will have full freedom of movement rights within the EU. Cameron sent a clear message to Bulgarians and Romanians through the new immigration program designed to prevent immigrants from “exploiting the benefits provided by the UK social system”. EU countries don’t want to repeat the UK and Ireland’s 2004 enlargement experience when those two countries absorbed more than 70% of migrants to the EU-10. Therefore, EU countries intend to close the doors opened by EU acquis, by resorting to social pressures and local policies.


Cameron is not alone in his expectation-oriented approach; Germany has also articulated similar concerns and a similar discourse. Interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich argues that after gaining free movement rights “there will be a huge influx of labor from Bulgaria and Romania and mostly the poor families will come and abuse the German social welfare system.” Therefore, Germany is opposed to fully opening its borders to Bulgaria and Romania. Contrary to the claims and concerns of German authorities, a report by Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration says that 72% of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants are able to support themselves, meaning that those benefitting from the welfare state are the exceptions. Similarly, different researches show that these concerns don’t have a basis in reality in the UK, either. Contrary to the “imaginary fear”, the great masses aren’t waiting at the borders to get in the UK as of 2014.


Perceptions and realities


Studies on the EU’s eastern enlargement have often compared the EU-10 (those being EU members in 2004) with the EU-2 (Bulgaria and Romania), because contrary to the 2004 experience when most migrants went to the UK and Ireland, migration from EU-2 shows different patterns. It is a fact that Bulgarian and Romanian citizens generally prefer Italy and Spain as their first destination due to the proximity in terms of language and geography. However, the ongoing economic crisis is expected to change these people’s preferences. Even the BBC polls conducted in Bulgaria and Romania in March and April show increasing interest in the UK. According to the polls, when asked “whether in the past five years they had considered moving to live and work in another EU member state”, the UK was cited as the top destination for both Romanians (33%) and Bulgarians (37%). When those were asked to pick their first choice of EU country to move in either 2013 or 2014, 4.6% of Romanians and 9.3% of Bulgarians just chose the UK.   Despite the UK being the top choice, these figures are quite low. Moreover, there is a significant discrepancy between desires and concrete plans. In fact, only 4.2% of these Bulgarian aspirants and 1% of Romanian aspirants were actually job seekers in the UK. Crucially, respondents did not consider migrating without a serious job offer.


Statistics show a significant decrease in migration to the UK after the 2004 enlargement. According to the UK’s Migration Statistics Quarterly Report from February 2013, the number of incoming migrants from EU-8 (EU-10 except Southern Cyprus and Malta) countries fell from 86,000 in 2011 to 62,000 in 2012, a 29% decrease. Further, this number is the lowest since 2004.


Beyond the concrete figures of migrants, research estimates their impact to be much less than is generally expected. The April 2013 NIESR (National Institute of Economic and Social Research) report somewhat vindicates the Eastern European immigrants Cameron accused of exploiting the social system. According to the report, the eastern enlargement didn’t created the expected pressure on neither health services nor housing. The report also claims that “future migration from both Bulgaria and Romania is unlikely to have a significant impact.” Current research findings show that UK arrivals are young, healthy, mostly single, and come without their families. This general profile is also consistent with the profile of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants. Consequently, contrary to the rumors and concerns across the EU, particularly in the UK, neither the data on the 2004 eastern enlargement nor future projections of Romanian-Bulgarian migration give any cause for concern.