Coming in from the Cold: Transition in Eastern Europe and Labour Migration to the UK

Article excerpt

Sam Scott helps us understand 'the most significant mass migration to the UK since the 1950s and 1960s'-from Eastern Europe. Students in schools all over England will be aware, in different ways, of its impact in their own localities. This article provides data, examples and references to enable teachers to develop the curriculum to include the study of this phenomenon and the study of a part of the world which is almost totally absent from the secondary school geography curriculum. NB This article is being published to coincide with the transmission of 'Michael Palin's New Europe' on his travels in Eastern Europe.

Introduction

Winston Churchill's 1946 vision of a 'United States of Europe' has come closer to realisation with the accession of new member states to the European Union (EU) (see Figure 1), ten of which were under Soviet control or influence until the beginning of the 1990s.

In the UK an estimated 493,533 Eastern European migrants registered to work between May 2004 and December 2006 (Home Office, 2007). This migration represents part of one of the most profound movements of people within Europe since the second World War, and is certainly the most significant mass migration to have affected the UK since the 1950s and 60s (when large numbers of Caribbean and Asian workers were invited to Britain from the Commonwealth to address post-war labour shortages). The UK needs migrants 'at all skill levels in the labour market' (Glover et al., 2001) and the government has been active in ensuring that low-skilled vacancies in particular are filled by Europeans rather than migrants from outside the EU (Home Office, 2005). This is reflected by the fact, for example, that the British government was one of only three member states not to impose restrictions on migrants from the 'A8' countries that joined the EU in 2004.1 At the same time, Eastern Europeans have been incredibly pro-active in seeking employment in the west. This relates to the difficulties of transition from a planned to a free-market economy, and the economic decline and unemployment growth that has been associated with this. It has also become easier for workers within the EU to realise the vision of 'free movement' outlined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome: the internet, e-mail, low-cost air and coach travel, and the development of global English, have all been significant in this respect.

This article attempts to explore and explain recent Eastern European migration to the UK following EU enlargement. Interestingly, from a geographical perspective, Eastern European migrants have moved to the UK to fill jobs across the country and have therefore settled in areas not traditionally associated with immigration. They have constituted one of the most diffuse massmigrations that the UK has ever seen.

Post-Socialist transition

From 1989 onwards, the physical and ideological Cold War divisions in Europe virtually disappeared. Many Europeans quickly realised that a new European vision was required to fill the resultant vacuum: EU membership became this guiding vision. 1989 was the beginning of a new Europe and the prospect of EU membership was an important 'carrot' to support states that might otherwise have become unstable. Given that one of the key principles of EU membership is free movement of all factors of production (capital, goods, services and labour), it was known from the early 1990s that some migration from east to west (and vice versa) would occur. The reason that this article has been written, however, is because the scale of this movement to the UK exceeded all expectations.2

Historical antecedents

There is a long history of mobility between east and west: between the 1890s and the First World War, for example, large numbers of (mainly Jewish) migrants sought refuge in the UK; while in the run up to the second World War migration from Eastern Europe increased again.

During and immediately after the second World War, reluctant to go back to de facto Soviet-controlled territory, large numbers of Eastern European workers were allowed into the UK. …