We must stop looking at EU migrants as coming from two Europes – the east, and everywhere else

Meat for sale at a Polish delicatessen in London. Matt Dunham / AP/Press Association Images

Migration is a central theme in the debate over Britain’s membership of the EU before the referendum in June. But the focus is often upon migrants from eastern Europe, with migrants from everywhere else in Europe largely absent from such discussions. Perhaps because those from the east are newer to the European community, it is they who are often portrayed as a problem.

EU migration has been a political hot potato since enlargement of the union in 2004, which enabled the free movement of workers from the new member states. Following this, the UK has seen migration from eastern Europe on an unprecedented scale – in particular from Poland.

The latest official data shows estimated net migration of EU citizens to the UK was 172,000 in the year ending September 2015.

Rhetoric in the media and from politicians has been focused on securing a deal to reduce the numbers of people coming to the UK. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2015 immigration manifesto featured the Conservative Party’s “ambition” of delivering annual net migration in the tens of thousands, and to control migration from the EU by reforming welfare rules.

An ‘influx of Poles’

Much of the negative attitude towards EU immigration has been focused on migration from Poland, Romania and other east European countries.

Over the past five years the number of EU nationals living in the UK has gone up by almost 700,000 to 3.3m. According to a recent report from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, 49% of this increase in EU nationals was from Poland and Romania – clearly a significant figure.

But what about the remaining 51%? The report found 24% were migrants from Spain, Italy and Portugal. Among these were 74,000 Spanish nationals, an increase of 117% on the 63,000 Spanish citizens registered in Britain in 2011.

Six countries provided almost half of all EU nationals in the UK – Poland, Romania, Spain, Italy, Hungary and Portugal. This is an equal balance between eastern European and southern European nations. These six nations account for 80% of the growth of Britain’s EU-born population in recent years. Yet discussions of EU migration still focuses upon those from eastern Europe.

Push and pull factors

The issue of why EU migrants appear to be favouring the UK as a destination is a central topic in the Brexit debate. While the UK ranks fourth out of EU countries which host the largest number of EU migrants, countries that rank above it (Germany, Spain and France) are larger geographically – therefore spreading the impact of migration.

The Migration Observatory study concluded that there are multiple factors involved. Southern Europeans are now looking for work in the UK to avoid the eurozone job crisis at home. Between 2011 and 2015, Spain, Italy and Portugal together had lost almost a million jobs. In addition to this “push factor” they are attracted to the UK by better wages and economic prospects on offer there.

Some of these factors are likely to remain in place for the long term, such as low wages in the new EU member states, particularly Romania where 25.6% of the population earn what is deemed as a low wage. Other factors may be temporary, such as high unemployment in Spain.

But there is still no clear evidence that welfare benefits represent an “unnatural draw”, as argued by the government. In fact, EU migrants were more likely to be employed and childless, meaning that only a small number are actually claiming welfare payments, such as child benefit and unemployment benefits, in the UK. In 2014, 4.9m working-age benefit claimants – 92.6% of the total – were British while 131,000, or 2.5%, were EU nationals.

In any discussion of migration we need to remember that Britain has been a country of high net migration for nearly 20 years, regardless of who is in power and of where migrants come from.

So EU migration to the UK is not made up purely of people from eastern Europe. Some estimates suggest, for example, there are 270,000 French people living in London. Acknowledging this complex mix of migration into the UK is all the more important considering immigration’s significance in the EU referendum. And it’s misleading to think that immigration will be halted if Brexit does happen: the think tank Open Europe has projected it would be unlikely to fall.