It’s ten years this month since eight central and eastern European countries (and two Commonwealth countries, Malta and Cyprus) joined the EU.
This was a historic achievement, bringing former Communist dictatorships into the family of democratic countries that constitute the EU — helping to anchor peace, stability and human rights in a potentially volatile area. The contrast with those who did not join then — Serbia, Bosnia, other former Yugoslav republics, and now Ukraine — could not be more telling.
The EU’s enlargement also generated and sustained a period of hugely significant economic growth in the new member countries. This was not just good for them, it was good for us: central and eastern Europe became one of the biggest growth areas for British exports.
But, for most people in Britain, the most visible aspect of this EU enlargement has been the arrival of many migrants from Poland and other new member states. Along with Ireland and Sweden, Britain granted full access to these migrants from day one, while other countries such as Germany, France and Holland waited until the end of the transitional period agreed in the accession treaty. Labour has subsequently accepted that this was a mistake and it will not be repeated.
While this decision resulted in a higher number of arrivals than we expected, we should not lose sight of the fact that the young Poles and others have overall paid far more in taxes to the UK treasury than they have received in UK benefits and services. After all, they have been recently educated at the expense of their own country’s taxpayers, and they have come here to work and thereby contribute to our economy — there are very few exceptions to this.
But while inward migration has been a huge gain for hard pressed government finances, there have been problems when unscrupulous employers and agencies exploit the new migrants to pay them less than the minimum wage, dock tied accommodation from their wages or cut corners on health and safety, taking advantage of the fact that new arrivals are less familiar with our rules and laws. This not only takes advantage of new workers, it also undercuts British workers.
It’s entirely in our own government’s hands to do something about this. The UK government doesn’t need to reach agreements with other EU countries or anyone else to properly enforce the minimum wage (there have been next to no prosecutions of companies not doing so) or to require agencies and employers to advertise jobs locally. Trying to blame “Brussels” just doesn’t wash.