Making headlines in the international press, this case is a good illustration of the increasingly stricter immigration laws across Europe. In the present recessionary times, unemployment rates across the Union rose tremendously, reaching its highest level in ten years. Europe is progressively building a ‘fortress’ as states take on increasingly protectionist measures, among others by implementing stricter immigration rules.
The UK is an interesting example of European trends. Over the last decades it was known to be one of the major European ‘immigration countries’ owing it to its highly liberal immigration policies. Yet, the latest developments portray the British government’s increasingly strict stance on this matter.
What Led to the UK’s Make-Over ?
After the 2004 EU enlargement to ten new member states, the UK witnessed a historical immigration inflow, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe. At that time, the Labour government under Tony Blair advocated a liberal immigration policy which would pose no particular limit to the number of workers from the new EU member states. Although only 13,000 workers per year were expected, the immediate introduction of free movement of labour resulted in an inflow 20 times higher than expected. Soon, the government faced heavy criticism from the media, opposition and the electorate.
In 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown then announced he would advocate tougher measures to protect the British labour market under the banner of ‘British jobs for British workers’. The Labour government took a major policy U-turn from a highly liberal to a rather restrictive immigration policy. Home Secretary John Reid argued that low skilled migrants must be limited. Therefore, not only did workers from Romania and Bulgaria (who joined the EU in 2007) have to apply for a work permit, but highly skilled migrants were also favoured to low-skilled migrants, who in turn were limited to certain sectors and quotas.
Policy U-Turn : The Right Choice of Direction ?
Several research institutes showed that the British government’s turn to more restrictive policies seems economically unfounded. The 2004-2006 immigration inflow has rather proven to be beneficial for the British economy. In 2006, the National Institute Economic Review (NIER) published a study which showed that the UK’s output would rise by 1 percentage point in the long-run thanks to its liberal immigration policy. Conversely, a restrictive policy as pursued in Germany would result in an output rise of only half a percentage point.
Besides, several studies such as those carried out for the European Commission or by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) showed that the side-effects of an open labour market policy feared by the UK government did not become a reality. Unemployment did not rise, the skill composition was not imbalanced, nor were national workers ‘crowded out’. If the government’s economic fears were proven wrong, what else could have motivated their case against liberalizing the labour market ?
- Partcipating at demonstrations regarded as criticizing the government
might in future delay the application process for British citizenship
Source : flickr, akanekal
European and national public opinion polls (e.g. Eurobarometer) have shown that among European countries, the UK was one of the least supportive of EU enlargement and immigration. In 2006, a Financial Times poll showed that 3 out of 4 British respondents claimed that there are ‘too many immigrants in their country’.
In reaction to such negative public opinion, the British government may have adopted more restrictive immigration policies in order to remain legitimate and popular to its electorate. Whether its reasons were purely economic or mainly political is debatable, yet the results remain the same : Immigrating to the UK is becoming increasingly difficult. In the context of the current economic recession the government argues that in these conditions Britain cannot afford to continue accepting as many immigrants as it used to.
Applying for Citizenship : ‘Geese and Skulls’
Previously, citizenship was granted to those residing in Britain for five years or for three years if married to a British citizen. Given that in 2008 half of the people granted citizenship were either spouses or children of British citizens, the government now argues that becoming ‘British’ should be based on tougher requirements than mere marital or family relations.
The new rules for acquiring citizenship are reminiscent of the popular children’s game ‘Game of the Goose’. In this spiral-shaped board game players move forward by as many spaces as there are numbers on the dice until reaching the finish line. In addition to the citizenship test, which will concentrate on practical information about life in the UK and on history and politics, a new rule has been introduced : Providing that it takes effect in July 2011, a points-based system will now test applicants’ behaviour. Just as players in the Game of the Goose have to reach the finish line, applicants have to accumulate a certain amount of points to be granted British citizenship. In the game, when landing on a space with a goose, a player is granted extra spaces. Similarly, in the points-based system, applicants receive extra points by doing voluntary work, actively learning English, or if they move to areas of labour shortage (e.g. Scotland). Also, the government favours applicants demonstrating qualifications and special skills currently in demand, such as math teachers, nurses and ballet dancers.
But, be aware ! When landing on a space with a skull in the game, the player must move a couple of spaces back. In the points-based system, landing on the ‘skull’ is somewhat more controversial. Indeed, applicants are not only penalized for being involved in illegal or criminal behaviour : They are even castigated for participating in demonstrations (Iraq and Afghanistan wars), and if judged to fail integrating into British society or respecting British values.
Although Phil Woolas, Minister of Immigration, argued that this way immigrants would prove they ‘earned’ their British passport, it seems appalling that the immigrant’s path towards citizenship would be prolonged when exercising the universal right of freedom of speech.
Game Over ?
Due to the economic recession the number of immigrants to the UK has already decreased. So whether changes to the previously rather liberal immigration policies in the UK are really a response to the recession is dubious. Rather, the underlying reason could be the ultimate will to remain in office. Whatever the rationale, an open but controlled immigration policy must clearly be in place. However, neither should an applicant have to move back to the start line for exercising his or her fundamental rights in a democratic country, nor should he or she become the loser of a game whose rules are evidently flawed.
The UK is merely an example of the increasing trend to toughen immigration policies across Europe. However, in times of crisis, it won’t be long until other countries will have immigrants playing the Game of the Goose.
Logo : Flickr, ShoZu