The huge political cost of Blair’s decision to allow Eastern European migrants unfettered access to Britain

A new dawn for the EU in 2004: Tony Blair speaking at the accession of ten countries. John Stillwell PA Archive

The future of immigration from the European Union into Britain is likely to dominate the kind of deal Britain gets after Brexit. In a survey conducted in mid-October by Survation for ITV news about the post-Brexit future, 56% of respondents were more concerned about immigration than they were about maintaining trade benefits.

To understand why Britain became so opposed to migration from the EU, it’s key to understand a decision made by the Labour government in 2004, which has had lasting political repercussions.

In May 2004, the EU welcomed ten new member states – the majority from Central and Eastern Europe – in what was the largest expansion in the history of European integration. The UK was one of only three member states, alongside Sweden and Ireland, to open its labour market to these new EU citizens immediately.

At the time, Labour’s decision was largely uncontroversial and met with bipartisan support in parliament. Yet this was to be perhaps Tony Blair’s greatest unintended legacy and ultimately a contributor to his party’s electoral defeat in years to come.

Although ten countries became EU member states in 2004, attention focused on the “A8 countries”. These were Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

While the number of migrants from Central and Eastern Europe into the UK was predicted to be in the region of 5,000 to 13,000 on the assumption that other member states would also open their labour markets, most didn’t. And the flows turned out to be over 20 times the upper end of this estimate.

In 2004 and 2005, 129,000 migrants from the A8 countries entered Britain, according to research by migration researcher John Salt that takes into account various ways of measuring immigration.

Tide turns against free movement

Labour’s wider managed migration programme was expansive, a package of reforms designed to expand labour migration routes and above all embrace the positive economic benefits of immigration from around the world. But these reforms paled in significance to this single decision, with 112,000 A8 nationals entering the UK in 2007 alone.

Labour’s decision ignited the debate on whether free movement was a wholly positive thing. Since then Britain has had 12 years of public debates on welfare shopping, job displacement and social dumping – the exploitation of cheap labour. UKIP successfully intertwined immigration and EU membership in its appeal to the British electorate. And the Conservative-led coalition government’s framing of immigration as a problem paved the way for a public less enthused with free mobility.

Come June 23 2016, the British public decided by a slim majority that the benefits of EU membership did not outweigh the costs, and for many the perceived cost of free movement was the deciding factor.

What led to the decision

So why did the Labour government take such a politically risky decision back in 2004? For a decision which had such large ramifications both politically and on Britain’s population, there was a surprising lack of debate. There were two reasons for this. First, the government had assumed that other member states would open their labour markets and so diffuse migration flows. Second, the decision was perceived and framed among the British political elite as a geopolitical matter rather than one focused on immigration.

While Britain confirmed the decision in late 2002, most other member states did not make the decision until early 2004. The UK economy was booming at this time, leading to demand for workers. Conversely, other states such as Germany were suffering from economic stagnation and high levels of unemployment.

In Germany, Austria, France and Italy, months of public debate led to the imposition of transitional controls, largely because of fears over job displacement, and in turn pressure from trade unions. Despite the early rhetoric of embracing free movement from these “old states”, at the eleventh hour, 12 out of 15 of them imposed restrictions to varying degrees, with Germany and Austria imposing the maximum seven-year period. This meant that citizens of the new member states had to wait until 2011 until they could freely work in Germany and Austria.

Given the complexity of migration flows, it’s not possible to say definitively whether more people migrated to the UK from the A8 countries than would have done had more EU member states opened their labour markets in 2004, but this wouldn’t be an unfair assumption.

Managing migration and building allies

The decision was certainly presented as part of the British government’s wider managed migration policy – and within this framework, it made logical sense.

Yet the decision was also conversely part of the wider control agenda to reduce irregular immigration. Visa restrictions for citizens from Eastern European countries had been lifted in 2001, so de facto labour mobility was already taking place. Given that the UK would have no power to deport the new EU citizens, the government’s view was that it would be better to make sure the workers who came did so legally, allowing the government to focus on deporting illegal immigrants.

Yet the main rationale for this decision had very little to do with immigration per se, but rather diplomacy. Britain was a keen supporter and indeed a “driver” of accession of Central and Eastern European countries into the EU from early on, with Margaret Thatcher setting the precedent. This was principally due to trading ties and a foreign policy interest in forging alliances with these states at the EU level.

The benefit of hindsight

So one of the largest immigration flows to Britain was not altogether an immigration policy. In retrospect, if the government had known just how large this wave of migration would be, it would have undoubtedly made a different decision, as Jack Straw, the former home secretary, admitted in 2013.

The decision to allow citizens of the A8 countries free movement to come to the UK was fiscally sound but politically costly. The unexpectedly large migration from Central and Eastern Europe lent the impression that Labour could not control the borders. This is an issue which continues to dog the Labour party and contributed to electoral defeats in 2010 and 2015.

Poles and other Central and Eastern European citizens have enriched the UK culturally and economically. Nonetheless, such large and rapid immigration alerted the public to the implications of free movement, and in turn the apparent costs of membership of the EU.