5. British and other EU migration

5.1 Free movement migration within the EU
5.2 Reducing the demand for EU migrant workers

A notable limitation that the UK faces in reducing immigration is that it cannot restrict the immigration of other EU nationals. As a member of the EU, Britain has agreed to a legally binding directive allowing freedom of movement and residence for citizens of EU states – this means that British people have the right to live and work elsewhere in the EU, and that over 400 million EU citizens have the right to live and work in the UK (with the exception of Romanians and Bulgarians who are free to move to the UK but whose access to the labour market remains restricted until the end of 2013).

5.1 Free movement migration within the EU

Figure 10 below uses data from the International Passenger Survey (IPS) to show the migration flows of EU citizens (excluding British citizens) to the UK, and of UK citizens from Britain to other EU countries. In the absence of the right to free movement, these migration flows would be restricted by immigration controls in the UK and other EU countries.

Figure 10 Illustrates that during the 1990s and early 2000s the number of EU citizens – excluding British – coming to the UK was broadly similar to the number of UK citizens moving to other EU countries. However, this changed in 2004 when eight East European countries – the so-called A8 countries – joined the EU. Since 2004 considerably more EU migrants have arrived in Britain annually than British citizens have moved from Britain to the (enlarged) EU. In 2010, 156,000 EU migrants came to the UK, while 34,000 UK citizens emigrated to other countries in the EU – indicating that a balance of 122,000 more EU migrants came to the UK than UK citizens emigrated to take up residence elsewhere in the EU.

Figure 10

While Figure 10 provides an interesting insight, it shows only part of the migration picture as it does not deal with EU citizens leaving the UK to return to their home countries or other EU states, or the return of UK citizens from other EU countries to the UK. So Figure 1 does not tell us about net migration of EU citizens between the UK and other EU countries.

Figure 11 gives a clearer picture of the impact of EU freedom of movement on overall net migration in the UK. It looks at the net-flows of British and other EU citizens between Britain and other EU countries. This means that it measures three things:

  • The balance between the number of British citizens who leave the UK to take up residence in another EU country, and the number who return to the UK after having been resident in another EU country (the pink line)
  • The balance between the number of (non-British) EU citizens who arrive in the UK to take up residence and the number who leave the UK for another EU country, after having been resident here (the green line)
  • The balance between these two numbers (the red line).


Figure 11

Three particularly striking points from this graph are, firstly, that between 2002-2007 the combined net migration of British and EU citizens to the UK increased by more than 100,000, from -26,000 to +75,000; secondly, that between 2007-2008 net EU migration to the UK dropped dramatically (widely attributed to the financial crisis); and thirdly, that in 2009 and 2010 – for the first time since 1994 – more British citizens returned to the UK from other EU countries than left to move to other EU states.

In 2010, net migration of EU citizens between the UK and other EU countries accounted for a little over a quarter of overall net migration to the UK.  During the period 2004-2010, total net migration of EU citizens between the UK and other EU countries was about +298,000 (again equivalent to about a quarter of total net migration in the UK over this period).

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5.2 Reducing the demand for EU migrant workers

While the government cannot directly restrict the immigration or length of stay of EU nationals, the government could take steps to reduce the demand for migrant workers from within and outside the EU (for a detailed discussion, see our policy primer Responding to Employers: Labour Shortages and Immigration Policy).

Employers’ incentives and business and recruitment strategies are critically influenced, and in many ways constrained, by the wider institutional and regulatory framework that is created by public policies. Public policies have often incentivised employers in some sectors and occupations to respond to shortages through the employment of migrant workers. The UK has long emphasised labour market flexibility and relatively low levels of labour regulation. Together with a range of policies from training to housing, this stance has contributed to creating a growing demand for migrant workers.

For example, in the construction sector the difficulty of finding suitably skilled British workers is critically related to low levels of labour market regulation and the absence of a comprehensive vocational education and training system (Chan, Clarke and Dainty 2010). Social care is another sector where public policies have created and increasing demand for migrant workers (Moriarty 2010; Cangiano et al. 2009). Two thirds of care assistants in London are migrants. The shortages of social care workers and care assistants are largely due to low wages and poor working conditions. Most social care in the UK is publically funded, but actually provided by the private sector and voluntary organisations. Constraints in local authority budgets have contributed to chronic underinvestment. Together with the structure of the care sector itself, this approach has resulted in a growing demand for low-waged, flexible workers which, in turn, has led to a growing demand for migrant labour.

The implication is that labour immigration from the EU could be reduced by changes to the public policies and institutions that have contributed to a growing demand for migrant labour. These policy changes include, for example, more and better training of British workers (e.g. in sectors like construction where the lack of a comprehensive training system fuels the demand for experienced East European migrant labour), changes in welfare policies to encourage more British workers to join the workforce (something the government has already begun to do), and better wages and conditions in some low waged public sector jobs.

In the short- to medium term, these changes are unlikely because of the economic downturn and budget cuts - which may well, in fact, increase demand for migrants in low-waged sectors such as social care. But the fundamental point remains that the government might be able to reduce the demand for migrant labour through a range of labour market policies.

Implications for stabilising the UK population at or under 70 million: EU immigration creates a complication for any government committing to stabilising the UK population at any size - the freedom of EU citizens to come to migrate to the UK makes it essentially impossible to say with any certainty that the population of the UK will be maintained at any specific size. While the government cannot directly control the inflow of EU migrants, it can implement a range of policies that help reduce the demand for EU migrant workers in the UK

Britain's '70 Million' Debate