Labour mobility is a good thing. That much is economic orthodoxy. It spreads wealth and makes economies more efficient. In Britain, over the last two years, we’ve been experimenting with the limits of labour mobility. As a result, we now know that if you open your borders to poorer states their more enterprising young citizens will head your way en masse.
For Britain’s economy this has been an unreservedly good thing. The labour market is soaking up these new arrivals with alacrity, our cities are loud with construction work and our service sector is booming. For ordinary people – by which I mean people in permanent work – it’s also been good: cheaper services, more places to get your car washed, better-staffed hospitals and so on.
One group has probably suffered, though (I say ‘probably’ because the data isn’t in yet and, so far, we have only the Daily Mail’s word for it). This group was already vulnerable to labour market change and is almost certainly suffering now: workers at the fringe of the permanent job market: casual and seasonal workers, illegal and off-the-books staff at the bottom end of the economy. These people are almost certainly seeing hourly rates pushed down and more competition for jobs they’d have got easily two years ago.
Deciding whether we should close the border or apply special limits for the next wave of accession states is tricky. To begin with, what we’ve been seeing over the last two years is not immigration. It’s genuine labour mobility. Freedom of movement in the EU now makes it possible for workers to take their earnings home with them and spend them where they’ll buy three times as much. Many already have. Many will make the return journey lots of times.
Isn’t it a matter of simple morality?
It’s actually quite hard to make a coherent moral argument in favour of keeping the border wide open. Those that try are usually confusing asylum policy with European labour mobility. These workers are not asylum seekers, they’re not fleeing persecution or starvation, nor even extreme poverty. They’re driving here in their late model VWs and Fiats (across those less welcoming states), paying for Channel Tunnel tickets, staying in guest houses, renting flats – they have no interest in welfare benefits. In fact it’s easier to make a moral argument against open borders: EU expansion was not meant to impoverish – or even inconvenience – poorer Britons and the pressure on public services, housing and the environment must not be ignored.
Simple economics, then?
Economic and social arguments in favour of admitting all-comers are easier to come by: the British economy is getting the lion’s share of the economic benefits of this wave of willing workers. The Treasuries of our near neighbours look on enviously at Britain’s labour market-led boom. Some are even changing their own policies to match ours. Some analysts here say it’s a matter of ‘holding our nerve’, keeping the doors open and waiting for the economic benefits to trickle down to everyone – the flow will tail off as Britain’s capacity to use the labour falls anyway. Others say the boost to the nation’s ethnic diversity will produce benefits of its own, as it has done in the past. Still others, more credibly, say that putting the hysterical anti-immigration lobby in the driving seat will set back racial tolerance and make things tougher for asylum seekers and earlier immigrants.
Media and legislators muddy the waters
So this is a subtler issue than most of the media want you to believe. It’s not a battle for the soul of open, tolerant Britain (The Independent), nor doomsday for swamped public services (The Daily Mail). Romanians and Bulgarians should probably be allowed to come freely, like citizens of the eight nations before them, but we don’t owe them a living and their rights don’t trump those of Poor Britons. We should do so because European openness is important but also because there will be fewer incomers in this wave and because we haven’t exhausted the economic benefits of the first wave yet.
Since there’s no moral urgency (no lives to save) we have the luxury of treating the whole exercise as an ongoing experiment and that means being ready to close or part-close the border if it’s not working. If plugging Britain’s economy into what’s probably the most powerful source of labour market renewal Europe has ever seen is not an unqualified good thing then we should be prepared to admit it and change direction. As usual, the problems that arise, if they do, will be the result of political contingency and shortsightedness (“how will this play in the marginals?”) and nothing to do with the challenge itself (“how do we make Britain more competitive?”).