Thursday, September 07, 2006

Blocking Bulgarians and Romanians is folly (European Voice column)

Here is a simple way of encouraging organised crime, dismaying the honest, benefiting bad employers and penalising good ones: restrict the right of Bulgarians and Romanians to work freely in the rest of the European Union.
Few subjects stimulate sillier discussion and worse economics than migration from poor countries to rich ones. The biggest fallacy is of the ‘lump of labour’: there is only so much work to go round, so every job that goes to ‘foreigners’ means less for ‘natives’.
Barely less wrong-headed is the idea of the ‘brain drain’: all the hard-working and clever people from poor countries migrate to rich ones. Human capital (economist-speak for brainpower and experience) erodes in one place and is wasted in the other, as physics teachers abandon their pupils to wash windows in rich countries.
In extreme cases, migration can depress wages in the recipient country and cut growth in the source one. But there is no sign of this happening so far in Europe. The experience of the past two years has been hugely positive. Yes, several million people (nobody knows quite how many) from the new member states have found work in ‘old Europe’. But there has been no discernible downward pressure on wages there as a result.
Secondly wages in the new member states have been shooting up as employers try to keep the workers they need. Those that go abroad are learning new skills, languages and outlooks – all of which will enrich their home country when (as most do) they return there.
Of course there is friction in places. Some Poles have arrived in London ill-prepared and over-optimistic and ended up sleeping on the streets. Some have gone home. Most start looking farther afield, in Britain or elsewhere. That’s just how the labour market ought to work.
But overall, everyone benefits from putting brains to work where they are best rewarded. It is a sad sign of the miserable timidity and pessimism of Europe’s chattering classes that it is even necessary to point out the blazing success under our noses. It is even more ironic that the scaremongering comes in what is supposed to be the ‘European Year of Workers’ Mobility’. That almost all countries in ‘old Europe’ have now relaxed restrictions on workers from the new member states shows that their politicians don’t believe the nonsense they talk.
Now the question is what to do about Romania and Bulgaria (who presumably will be called the ‘even newer member states’ once they join next year). Restrictions on their workers haven’t worked very well so far. In Spain alone, there are 400,000 Romanians working, according to an excellent report on migration by ECAS, a Brussels think-tank. So if restrictions don’t work even when these countries are outside the EU, why on earth should ‘transitional arrangements’ and similar bureaucratic nonsenses have the slightest positive effect once they are inside?
What restrictions will do is deter conscientious employers from dealing with the bureaucracy created by the restrictions. They won’t deter unscrupulous gangmasters from hiring casual labour for semi-legal work.
Workers in the twilight zone are easy prey for scamsters and racketeers. They are beyond the reach of trade union protection.
Instead of vainly trying to keep out workers from Romania and Bulgaria, all countries in Europe should be following ECAS’s very sensible recommendations: better statistics, better information for migrants, better policing of their working conditions, better integration of those that want to stay and fewer bureaucratic hurdles for those that want to return home. Europe needs more labour mobility, not less.

  • Edward Lucas is central and east European correspondent for The Economist.

    BondWoman said...

    Hear Hear.

    oulematu said...

    I very much agree with this article. It's unfortunate that the BBC and other media are waging a campaign against East European workers. It's also a pity that the governments of Germany and Austria (i.e. the countries that make the most difference to the new member states) have not yet come to realize that free movement of workers would benefit both sides.

    Sometimes it looks like people in the EU only want to talk about the EU but want to kill everything about it that actually works. Thinking along the lines of - Yes, let's allow the free movement of people but let's introduce emergency measures if, God forbid, the unthinkable happens and someone actually wants to move in pursuit of a job!

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