The government response to the A2 debate is doing more harm than good
Over recent weeks, public and parliamentary debate about immigration from A2 countries (Romania and Bulgaria) has continued to build. Much coverage has focused on the possibility that A2 nationals will flock to the United Kingdom for the sole purpose of registering to receive benefits and using the free NHS service for medical treatment.
This all started when Andrew Neil cornered Communities Secretary Eric Pickles on the possible numbers of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants coming to the UK once transitional restrictions are lifted on 1 Jan 2014. Pickles refused to give a number.
A hostile political debate about A2 migration has rapidly unfolded, with some MPs calling for tougher restrictions on areas such as social security and child benefits while others calling for all migration from the EU to stop. The government has also received further attacks from anti-immigration groups and papers about child benefits paid to children living abroad. A minority of MPs have voiced related concerns around a possible exodus of migrant workers from agricultural work after December 2013.
In response, the government has stepped up its efforts over the past week to ease public concerns about the impacts of a possible increase in immigration from Eastern Europe from next year. However, this has only fanned the heat in the debate.
Last week, Immigration Minister Mark Harper proposed an examination of whether he can restrict access to healthcare for A2 migrants – a policy likely to hit a brick wall given the maxim of EU law, which helps align all member-states with a common health policy and further supports carriers of the European Health Insurance card who have unrestricted access to state funded medical treatment – vice versa for Brits who find themselves needing medical treatment in EU and EEA countries.
The Department for Work and Pensions has also been active in responding to questions about access for A2 migrants to the UK benefits system. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith made clear last week that he intends to fight any legislation that would allow EU migrants to claim benefits “from day one” in the UK.
The government has also been keen to be seen as active in rebutting accusations that it will preside over an ‘open door’ policy on A2 immigration. The Home Office briefed reporters last week on a possible campaign that could be launched in Romania to make the UK a less attractive destination, only for the minister to immediately reject the claims on the Andrew Neil Daily Politics show. This furore has unsurprisingly caused some diplomatic tension with the Romanian Government and with the existing Romanian community in the UK feeling discriminated against.
This government strategy seems to have more to do with playing to the Sun newspaper’s hostility towards Eastern Europeans instead of engaging with a discourse aimed at seriously addressing public concerns. This is a short-term approach which has the potential to harm existing Romanian and Bulgarian communities in the UK if resentment and hostility towards them continues to build. Furthermore, triggering international tensions with these countries could have repercussions on Brits visiting or living there and a further impact on businesses aiming to invest in the UK.
At least now some ministers are beginning to discuss the possibility of Romanians and Bulgarians heading to other member states such as Spain, Germany, and France, as both the Treasury and the Foreign Office have acknowledged during parliamentary exchanges. However, defensive messaging about A2 migration from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office seems likely to continue – after all, these departments are under pressure from their goals to cut the welfare bill and reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ respectively. Both issues are going to be important issues within the pre-election campaign run by the Conservative Party.
We would urge politicians to be careful in their handling of the debate about A2 migration. Public concerns do need to be addressed, but the government should be seeking to unite the public around a balanced and proportionate response, rather than jumping to a knee-jerk reaction.