LONDON — When Poland and seven other formerly Communist nations joined the European Union in 2004, Britain threw open its jobs market earlier than required to welcome tens, even hundreds, of thousands of new workers born behind the Iron Curtain.
A decade later, the prospect of Romanians and Bulgarians’ being able to work freely here beginning next year has provoked protests in Parliament and the press. In a sharp illustration of how the immigration debate and Britain’s economic fortunes have shifted, the government was forced to deny that it planned a negative advertising campaign in Romania and Bulgaria to discourage people from coming to Britain.
Prime Minister David Cameron says Britain should not be a “soft touch” for migrants and his ministers are discussing ways to limit access to benefits or public services for those arriving from abroad.
In order not to break EU rules against discrimination, there are likely to be changes for Britons too, and one newspaper reported Monday that plans were being drawn up to introduce an “entitlement card” that anyone wanting access to services would need to produce.
Among Cameron’s Conservatives, pressure for action is growing and is only likely to increase after a by-election last week in which the party was pushed into third place by the U.K. Independence Party, which opposes mass immigration.
“My constituents,” added Philip Hollobone, a Conservative lawmaker, “think it is madness to open our borders to 29 million people when we have absolutely no idea how many are going to come to this country.”
In 2004, a healthy British economy seemed to benefit from globalization, booming financial services and open markets. Politicians saw immigrants giving a jolt to growth. Now a stagnant economy may slip into a triple-dip recession and Britain is experiencing another of its regular bouts of anxiety about immigrants.
“Immigration has always been a hot issue,” said Sandra McNally, professor of economics at the University of Surrey. “But it has become a lot hotter.” The discourse is particularly febrile because, before 2004, a study commissioned by the government hugely underestimated net immigration from Eastern Europe, suggesting 5,000-13,000 arrivals a year up to 2010. In fact, the 2011 census showed 521,000 Polish-born people listed as residents in Britain, with the vast majority having arrived after 2004. The case for Romania and Bulgaria is hardly helped by their ranking among Europe’s poorest nations, both struggling to combat corruption and organized crime, and to integrate Roma populations.
Nevertheless, because of EU law, the government’s options to act now are limited. Figures from the European Commission also suggest much of the migration has already taken place. By the end of 2010, around 2.9 million Bulgarian and Romanian citizens lived in other EU nations, more than twice as many as shortly before those countries joined the EU.