EU enlargement and the distant roots of the Brexit

by Livia Ortensi

The summer 2016 was marked by a major event with migrations at its very centre: the Brexit referendum sanctioned the will of a people to leave the Union. To take on Livi Bacci’s words (2016), demography has played a significant role in determining the outcome of the referendum. Not only because voters’ attitude varied between generations (Blangiardo, 2016), but first and foremost because of the manner in which the presence of EU citizens, in particular coming from Central and Eastern Europe, was mobilized all along the electoral campaign (Bidè, 2016; Somerville, 2016).

By looking at the recent history of the EU, the question that arises is: to what extent do Britons’ aversion for migrants from other EU countries find its roots in the management of the 2004 enlargement?

The 1st of May 2004 marked the biggest enlargement in the history of the European construction: from 15, the number of its members increased to 25. At the same time, almost all member states opted for a transition period that would restrict the free movement of new EU citizens from the A8 countries (new EU countries minus Cyprus and Malta) on the basis of a 2+3+2 years during which such restriction would be revised at the end of each period by each member state making up the EU15. Whilst Germany and Austria chose to impose restrictions for A8 citizens until 2011, Sweden, Ireland and the UK decided not to impose any restriction to the access to their labour markets (Koikkalainen, 2011) (even though the latter two imposed welfare restrictions, see Hughes, 2006).

The debate prior to the enlargement revolved around the fear that free movement for EU citizens coming from countries of lesser economic wealth would have led to mass migration towards EU15 countries. The estimations made before the enlargement posited an initial flow of 330.000 people per year, a figure that would come down to 150.000 in the second decade. Such estimates were then revised downwards, positing the arrival of 325.000 people per year that would have shrunk to 60.000 at the end of the first decade (Hughes, 2006). Later estimations made on a national basis for 2005 hypothesised the arrival of a maximum of 12.600 people per year (Dustmann et al. 2003; Boeri e Brücker, 2005). Such an influx of migrants would have profited the British economy as it was in a particularly good conjuncture.

The British government was surprised by the consequences of enlargement: not only the flows were partially underestimated but the presence of transition measures in the main destination countries for A8 citizens translated into a sudden change  of flows themselves. They massively turned towards the countries that opened their labour markets right after the enlargement. Some scholars assume that, despite the long history of the United Kingdom as a destination country, enlargement is likely to have resulted in the biggest migration wave ever with 400,000 entries in 2005 alone (Salt e Miller, 2006; Galgóczi e al. 2009).

The figures reported in the table below show how more than 900.000 requests presented through the Worker Registration Scheme (WRS) by A8 citizens were approved between 1 May 2004 and 31 December 2008. The actual number of entries is, however, deemed greater by some research that found that a significant share of A8 citizens (from 10 to 30% of them) did not register in the WRS.

Table 1 – Number of requests approved in the UK through the Worker Registration Scheme
from 1 May 2004 to 31 December 2008

2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2004-2008
Czech Rep. 8.255 10.575 8.345 7.510 6.520 41.205
Estonia 1.860 2.560 1.475 965 945 7.805
Hungary 3.620 6.355 7.060 8.880 10.865 36.780
Latvia 8.670 12.960 9.490 6.285 6.960 44.365
Lithuania 19.275 22.990 17.065 14.265 11.535 85.130
Poland 71.025 127.325 162.495 150.255 103.015 614.115
Slovakia 13.020 22.035 21.755 22.450 18.310 97.570
Slovenia 160 175 180 190 195 900
Total 125.885 204.970 227.875 210.800 158.340 927.870

Source: Home Office – UK Border Agency  (2009) p. 9

The impact of enlargement has been so important that it modified in a very short time-span the equilibrium of the traditional emigration routes from a demographically important country such as Poland. During the period 1999-2003, Germany was the main state of destination for Polish workers (one-third of them would go to Germany), while the proportion of those who went to the UK was less than 10%. In the three-year period 2004-2006, the proportion of those going to Germany dropped to 18.9%, while that of the UK increased to 31.4%, making it the first country to receive flows from Poland. The total flows from Poland to countries that did not impose restrictions (UK, Ireland and Sweden) ranged from 12.1% to 42.4%. A similar phenomenon occurred in the case of demographically smaller countries such as Latvia (D’Auria et al. 2008).

The latest Eurostat data (2016) confirms that such change proved permanent: as of January 1, 2015, approximately 870.000 Poles resided in the United Kingdom, compared to 640.000 in Germany and about 100.000 in the Netherlands and Italy. There is also a particularly high number of residents of demographically “small” countries in the European Union on British soil in 2015, for example: 109.000 Latvians, 173.000 Cypriots, 159.000 Lithuanians.

The causal relationship between such an unforeseen and uncontainable migration wave – because it is determined by the accession to the EU – and people’s critical sentiment towards free circulation granted to EU citizens – as bore witness the leave campaign which prove capable of capitalising on the argument – is evident.

Post-enlargement analyses have shown, however, that in spite of the high levels of education of A8 citizens migrating to the United Kingdom, their initial placement was in most cases in manual jobs where they were in direct competition with the relatively disadvantaged British workers, those that years later voted for the exit from the European Union (Galgóczi et al., 2009).

Notwithstanding the European economic situation is still far from the good pre-crisis performance, migratory movements are on the rise, driven by the entry of people fleeing wars in search of protection or people looking for better opportunities, be it through mixed flows originating from areas where poverty mixes with political instability and terrorism, be it through internal migration of EU citizens.

The extreme territorial selectivity of migratory flows appears to be a critical factor that results in an effective central response. The European Union is not currently in a position to provide an adequate response because its competence does not go as far as to determine the number of third-country nationals that a member state is willing to admit, flows that are determined by sovereign states. This is also why the refugee crisis is also an “existential crisis” for the Union (MPI, 2016) which shows the inadequacy of the instruments at its disposal in order to manage the criticalities relating to migration. Finally, the British case shows how migratory flows within the Union can lead to strong feelings about the Union itself. When migration pressure onto a member state is strong, EU internal migration is no less problematic than migration from third countries. The ability to forecast and handle such flows and their implications must be closely monitored, both in the current situation and in potential future enlargements.




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