Brexit: Playing the Blame Game - on Immigration

Let’s be honest. Would the UK be having a referendum today on its future participation in the EU if it had not been the leading protagonist within the EU in promoting the membership of eight Eastern European states (EU8) in 2004, and then Romania and Bulgaria (EU2) in 2007. Further, did David Cameron initially intend to call a referendum (as Mr. Blair should have in 2005), or had he assumed that the suggestion would be nixed by his expected coalition partner, the Lib Dems in last year’s election? Once again, the UK sees itself as a victim of uncontrollable events whereby much of the blame rests with itself.

In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and then Maastricht in 1992, the UK saw the potential achievement of twin objectives; providing a check to French and German influence within the EU and fulfilling Churchill’s dream of finally liberating and embracing Eastern Europe.

The French, under Mitterrand and later Sarkozy, had tried to offer alternatives to EU membership (privileged trade arrangements or quasi-membership) because they feared dilution of their influence   with the Benelux and Southern European countries, in going beyond the EU 15. They were even more explicit under President Chirac, who in February 2003, criticized the 13 future and potential EU Eastern European members for signing a letter of support for the US position on Iraq, as being irresponsible.  Romania and Bulgaria, in particular, not yet officially accepted into the EU, were given a particularly strong reprimand, with Chirac saying, “ If they wanted to diminish their chances of joining Europe they could not have found a better way,"

France feared a loss of hegemony as Eastern members would probably be more closely aligned with Germany, and that this would change the union from a federation to a looser ‘liberal economic zone’. The British, on the other hand, looked at the EU expansion as an opportunity to expand their sphere of influence. So when the European Council declared its intention to eventually enlarge the EU eastward at the 1993 meeting in Copenhagen, and later at the EU Summit in 1997; it was the UK who stood as the leading advocate.

The UK’s Home Office had assumed as few as 13,000 migrants a year from EU 8 would come to Britain, but not near the 700,000 that entered (and stayed) in the 5 years to 2009. As such, the UK was only one of three countries; Britain, Ireland and Sweden, to open its labour markets to workers from the new member countries when they joined in 2004. Similarly, initial restrictions on EU2 (Romania and Bulgaria) were later lifted as the natural flow of migrants was expected to go to Italy and Spain. 

It was also not until 2013, that the UK toned down its aggressive lobbying on behalf of Turkey. As recently as July 2010, on visiting Ankara, David Cameron was characterized as being ‘mad’ at the EU’s delaying tactics on Turkey, saying,   "I'm here to make the case for Turkey's membership of the EU. And to fight for it."  …"So I will remain your strongest possible advocate for EU membership and greater influence at the top table of European diplomacy." 

No country has been a more vocal proponent of EU expansion than the UK, perhaps because they felt that they would be sacrificing fewer subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but more likely because they assumed that it would dilute French and German hegemony over the EU. The UK also relished the double-digit export growth that would come from 100 million new EU members.

It is unlikely that any of the existing members went into the negotiations with any delusions as to the costs, as numerous studies had forecast that the new members would add as much as 60% to the 2004 budget of €100bn. Simulations in 1995 (based on 1991 data) showed that the Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia) would require ‘structural spending’ transfers for 2 to 3 decades until they were able to catch up to the cut-off of 75% of average EU income.  Custom Products estimates that it could take Poland 26 years, Romania 38 years and Bulgaria 46 years, to achieve this threshold (assuming 5% per capita GDP growth vs 2% for the EU on average). This should come as no surprise to anyone , as Ireland was a net recipient of EU funds for 32 years, until 2008; Spain for 23 years,  and  Portugal and Greece have continued to receive large net transfers since accession.

It is hard to blame UK citizens for being upset at what they perceive to be as rampant immigration. But it would also be disingenuous to put the blame entirely on the EU or Chancellor Merkel, rather than their leadership (both Labour and Tory). In fact, few have been as vehemently opposed to Turkey’s Accession to the EU as Merkel. Immigration, however, has generally been positive for the UK economy since the EU enlargement in 2004. Almost half of the Poles, who formed the majority in the initial wave of EU immigrants, have gone back as conditions in their home countries have improved.

No doubt, the UK and other member countries deferred too much to the European Commission when it came to accession negotiations for the new member states. Perhaps the UK should have been more vigilant, in foreseeing the loopholes that allowed immigrants to claim child benefits for their distant offspring, which were six times what they could receive at home. Nevertheless, it would still seem that overall, the UK has been a net beneficiary from its membership. And if Britons want to play the blame game, maybe they should start at home.

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