Analysis: How will the eurozone crisis affect migration to the UK?

By Rob McNeil

The way immigration policy is described in the popular press, and often by politicians and political pundits, can create a sense that it is something like the dyke in the story of the little Dutch boy – a barrier that prevents the nation from being flooded.

The 'catastrophic water metaphor' is such a mainstay of news reporting on immigration that one rarely even notices it. The nation, we read, has 'opened the floodgates' to migrants, has been hit by a 'tidal wave' of them, and is now 'swamped.' Scary stuff…

Our politicians like to portray themselves as the architects of this dyke – pragmatic planners building new foundations and shoring-up the existing walls. But their portrayal in the press is more often as either desperate figures sticking their fingers in the ever-increasing number of holes to stem the flow, as blasé or irresponsible characters ignoring the impending disaster or even as willing participants in the destruction of the dyke itself.

The euro crisis presents us with an interesting challenge to this ubiquitous metaphor. It represents a potentially seismic event that challenges the very structure of the immigration policy 'dyke.' But it may also show that immigration policies have sometimes had less to do with preventing the looming 'floods' than the fact that people do not behave like water.

Firstly, let's consider the factors that may drive migration from the EU – and in particular eurozone countries – and the magnitude of potential immigration that represents.

There are some 500 million people living in the EU, and more than half live in Eurozone countries. Even those not living in the eurozone would be likely to be indirectly affected by a major problem in the single currency. EU freedom of movement means almost every person in the EU has the right to come and live and work in the UK should they wish to do so (with a few exceptions, such as Romanians and Bulgarians who have limited access to the labour market). But most EU citizens, including Britons, have the right to live and work anywhere in the EU.

Clearly the UK is an attractive destination for many EU migrants – according to the World Bank Bilateral Migration Matrix there are around 2.2 million non-British EU citizens living the UK.

But while this is a significant number, it doesn't support the view that 'they all want to come here'. If we compare the UK to Germany, where there are approximately 3.8 million EU migrants, Spain 2.6 million or France 2.4 million, it becomes clear that the UK is only one of a number of major EU migrant 'receiving' countries. And freedom of movement cuts both ways – with about 1.4 million British citizens living in other EU countries, the UK is also one of the top five EU migrant sending countries.

If we were able to establish why people have moved around Europe in the way they have, it might start to provide some ideas about the potential migration implications of a euro collapse. But this is surprisingly complicated.

Governments tend to categorise migrants in exclusive terms, as either labour migrants, family migrants, student migrants or asylum seekers, but in reality people migrate for a mixture of reasons. A person may migrate to be with a loved-one, but with an intention of also improving their career and learning a new language. Their decision to relocate to a particular country might have as much to do with its climate or its location as the labour market.

This concept of 'mixed migration' is an important theme in the study of migration, but it also makes it very hard for politicians to identify which holes in the dyke to stick their fingers into.

So where does all of this leave us in the event of a euro collapse?

Firstly, it means that it is not possible to predict flows of migrants based solely on whether or not the UK economy outperforms the eurozone (or the post- eurozone). The UK is attractive to EU migrants for many reasons – the City of London, the language, comparatively low unemployment, the music scene and the NHS, to name but a few. But not everyone wants to live in a country where it rains all summer long, even if they can get a job.

Secondly, it means different countries might expect to be affected differently depending on how any eurozone crisis panned-out.

Established migrant communities are a big pull factor for people considering migration. They create networks, offer help finding housing and employment and in negotiating bureaucracy, and they offer something less tangible, but also very important – community.

So we might reasonably imagine that, in the event of a euro collapse, people leaving affected countries may be more likely to head to states that already host a large population of their fellow countrymen.

If we take specific examples of the countries currently appearing in the media under doom-laden headlines – Greece, Portugal and Spain – we see the biggest population of ex-pat Greeks, 470,000, is in Germany; the biggest population of ex-pat Portuguese, 760,000, is in France and the biggest population of ex-pat Spanish, 370,000, is also in France.

In contrast, the UK hosts a population of 28,000 Greeks, 84,000 Portuguese and 71,000 Spanish. So, in crude terms, considerably more people from the 'at-risk' countries have friends and family in Germany and France who might put-them-up and help them to find a job and a place to live, than they do in the UK.

But returning to the observation that flows of people do not act like flows of water, it is also worth remembering that even in the event of serious problems in the eurozone, many factors may mean people choose not to move at all, even though – on paper – it might appear to be in their interests to do so.

It is very hard to quantify, for example, how much you like your house, and the town where you live, or the value of having family and friends nearby, understanding the cultures and customs in a place, speaking the language and having some sort of 'history' somewhere. Weighing these up against the prospect of potentially improved financial stability in another country is not an easy thing to do, and different people will respond differently.

It is also hard to predict how national governments will respond to potential changes in the nature of their relationship with other EU states, and the impact that this will have on migration flows around Europe. Theresa May has already suggested 'contingency plans' are being considered to deal with a sudden increase in flows of migrants from the EU.

It is hard to know what this means, but, in a hypothetical situation where the UK or any other EU member were to refuse to adhere to the terms of the EU freedom of movement directive, it would mark a major change in fundamental EU accords. The ramifications to the EU project as a whole could be substantial, and this would include implications for migration.

If some countries were more restrictive toward EU migrants than others, it may stimulate greater flows of people to countries that remain more open. The UK labour market's relative openness to migrants from the A8 EU accession countries in 2004 is often blamed for the steep increase in Eastern European immigration to the UK since then, so one might expect the current government will take action to avoid a repetition of that.

But again, the flows of people are less predictable than one might think. The UK was one of three EU countries that fully opened its labour market to A8 migrants in 2004. The other two were Ireland – which also saw a major increase in A8 migrants – and Sweden, which did not.

Another factor to consider is that, even if the freedom of movement directive were completely abandoned, there are some flows of people from EU countries the UK would not be able to control – specifically British people who have been living abroad but choose to come back.

Considering that there are 1.4 million British citizens living in the EU, this could have significant implications. Some 411,000 British citizens live in Spain alone. The flip-side of this, of course, is that a relatively strong pound and a weak Mediterranean property market may make life in the sun more affordable for British people, stimulating a new wave of out-flows of British migrants to the Costas.

But the bottom line is this – predicting the migration outcomes of a collapsing or partially collapsing euro is probably impossible. The movement of people cannot be accurately predicted like flows of water because people make decisions that are not based on one stimulus. Will the UK see a change in migration flows if there is a major problem in the eurozone? Probably. What will that change look like? We simply don't know, and you probably shouldn't believe anyone who says they do.

Rob McNeil is the Senior Media Analyst at the Migration Observatory at Oxford University and is a former journalist and specialist in media strategy for the NGO sector.

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