Currently Romanian and Bulgarian nationals are entitled to two principal routes to work in the UK: the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme and the Sectors Based Scheme. The first allows for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals to undertake short-term seasonal agricultural work in the UK and the second allows Romanian and Bulgarian nationals to do low-skilled work in the food manufacturing process. They can, however, come in as self-employed persons, which doesn't technically require an official work permit (though this is advised), or through the Points-Based System, in the same way that non-EEA migrants can. Once they have completed twelve months, at the minimum, of continual work in the UK, they are entitled to full EEA rights and free movement through the European Economic Area.
Some 10 EEA countries still maintain restrictions on the work rights of Bulgarians and Romanians.
The Migration Advisory Committee authored a paper on the subject in November 2011. Their report stated: "In conclusion, our short answer to the first part of the question that we were asked to consider by the Government, namely 'Is there a disturbance or threat of such a disturbance to the UK labour market?' is yes". A second report is due on 31 March this year.
The MAC conclusions are at odds with the evidence provided to the MAC review by the Romanian embassy: "A significant increase of labour mobility from Romania seems unlikely. Large numbers have already been working in the EU over the past years, suggesting that many of those who wanted to move have potentially already done so and that the potential for additional emigration is limited".
However, the short answer is no-one knows what the impact will be. The Labour government significantly underestimated the impact of migration after the 2004 expansion of the EU, predicting up to 15,000 a year, rather than the million or so EEA immigrants that have actually arrived since 2004. Furthermore, no-one knows how many have subsequently gone back home.
However, in 2004 the UK was one of only three countries, and by far the largest (the others were Sweden and Ireland) not to place limits on the rights of the 2004 accession states. This time the UK will lift its restrictions at the same time as others and is therefore perhaps less of a natural target. Set against that is the fact that the UK remains attractive to many because it speaks a universal language, that some other natural conduits for emigrants are no longer as attractive (Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Ireland) because of the economic situation, and the fact that the UK has already established itself as a desirable destination by virtue of its previous 2004 policy.
So what will happen? On the basis that things are seldom as bad or as good as people expect, we would predict that:
- The hand-wringing will continue and, in the wake of the Eastleigh by-election result, there will be more calls to limit A2 immigration and to place additional limitations on them.
- The European Commission will pour oil on the flames by warning the UK and others of dire consequences if this happens.
- But nothing will happen and the restrictions on A2 workers will be lifted as planned.
- More Romanians will come than Bulgarians, because the former is a country of 21 million, the latter only 7.5 million. However, Bulgaria has worse youth unemployment (at nearly 30%) so proportionately Bulgarian emigration will probably be higher.
- Any exodus from those countries will consist largely of the young, willing and able.
- It will be larger than predicted by the migration lobby (not least because the idea that most who want to come will have already done so is silly, since the eligible pool is forever changing), and less than predicted by the doom-mongers who are largely extrapolating from the 2004 experience when the UK was in a different position to other large European countries.
- Life will go on and government will continue to engage the easy target of legal immigration (of all types), because it is visible and amenable to directives and rules, whilst being wholly ineffectual at addressing the problem of illegal immigration.
- Up and down the country, people will sit in pubs debating the issue, whilst being served their beer by Romanian and Bulgarian bar staff.