EU nations fear hordes of migrants from East Europe

The debate about immigration from Eastern Europe - principally from Romania and Bulgaria - shows no signs of abating.

Having started in Britain, where most of the attention is focused on immigrants alleged to be "welfare scroungers", it has now spread to Germany and France, where politicians are under pressure to do something to prevent "hordes" of people coming in.

But those now demanding a clampdown on new arrivals ignore the fact that recruitment of cheap yet educated labour from Romania and Bulgaria has continued for years: Since 2007, European Union (EU) countries competed with each other in recruiting Romanian doctors and nurses.

So, having creamed off the best-qualified East Europeans, public opinion in Western Europe now argues "no more".

The ability to move across frontiers and gain employment in any member-state without having to seek permission or comply with any bureaucratic requirement has been the EU's most popular achievement.

On the whole, this created few political difficulties, although the inclusion of the former communist Eastern Europe countries has led to a backlash which continues to grow.

One explanation for this is timing: Previous large migrations took place when Europe was booming, but the East Europeans joined just as recession hit the EU.

Another is sheer numbers: no fewer than 13 of the EU's current 28 member-states joined over the past decade, adding another 106 million inhabitants to the old EU's 400 million.

But the most important reason for the backlash is the huge wealth disparity between new and old EU members. Bulgaria, the poorest member-state, has a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) that is only 40 per cent of the EU average, and Romania is doing only slightly better at 44 per cent of the average GDP.

Largely because of these reasons, Romania and Bulgaria were the last to join the EU in 2007, and had to accept a temporary restriction of seven years before their citizens could have full access to labour markets. But that curb expired at the start of this year, and fears of a "stampede" are growing.

This is largely fuelled by scare-mongering British tabloid newspapers. The Daily Mail, for instance, reported at the start of this year that all flights from Romania to Britain were booked up by migrants. That was unsubstantiated.

As the media-fuelled panic spread, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced last week to come back on crutches from a skiing accident to chair a meeting on demands that "poverty migrants" be sent home and be fingerprinted in order to prevent their re-entry.

Dr Merkel rejected these suggestions, although this did not stop Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta from accusing some German politicians of having a "Nazi mindset".

There is no doubt that some migration pressures will persist. Although migrants are entitled to be paid a minimum wage, this can still amount to a small fortune for East Europeans: In Germany, the minimum wage would deliver ¤835 (S$1,400) a month, compared to just ¤150 in, say, Bulgaria.

So, the temptation to move is strong.

Britain also remains an attractive destination for EU migrants partly because, uniquely in Europe, its welfare payment system is based on residence rather than how much a worker contributed previously in taxes, so, it is easier to claim, and partly because working in Britain also offers a chance to learn the English language, a considerable asset for most Europeans.

But there is no evidence that EU migrants are welfare scroungers: "Migrants from EU countries are 33 per cent less likely than UK natives to claim any form of benefit," Professor Christian Dustmann, an economist who studies the subject at London's University College, told the BBC this week.

Indeed, Romanians and Bulgarians are helping to prop up their hosts' welfare systems.

For, although the citizens of these two East European nations were not allowed to seek work until this month, all Western European governments made an exception for doctors and nurses, who were actively recruited in their thousands, to work particularly in nursing homes for the elderly.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.