Commentary: Migration from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK

By Fic, Tatiana | National Institute Economic Review, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Commentary: Migration from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK


Fic, Tatiana, National Institute Economic Review


Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007. At the end of this year, the seven-year transitional restrictions on the access of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals to the UK labour market will be lifted. Bulgarian and Romanian nationals will be able to settle and take up employment in any country of the EU (as any other EU nationals can settle and take up employment in any other country of the EU). This commentary discusses factors that matter for the assessment of the impacts of potential future migration from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK1 and explains that, although it is difficult to predict future migration flows, both numbers and impacts are likely to be manageable. (2)

Lifting transitional restrictions

The objective of the policy of free movement of workers --unrestricted labour mobility--which is one of the original "Four Freedoms" of the European Union, is to improve the matching of labour supply and demand within the EU, benefiting both businesses and workers throughout Europe.

Despite the general economic consensus about the positive impacts of labour mobility, concerns regarding the immediate impact of opening labour markets have been an issue in all enlargements after the creation of the EU, including the 2007 accession of Bulgaria and Romania. In the latter case concerns have been raised by the large income gap between Bulgaria and Romania and the existing member states (the level of income in both countries is several times lower than the EU27 average) (3) and the size of their countries (about 29 million inhabitants).

As a consequence, the existing members of the EU maintained transitional controls on the mobility of workers from the two acceding countries, although for varying periods of time. Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Greece, Portugal, Spain (4) and Italy opened their labour markets to arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania before the end of the 7-year transitory period, while the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg maintained restrictions until the end of this year.

The impact of lifting the restrictions on an existing EU country is in part a function of the response of other EU member states. When the UK opened up its labour market to A8 countries in 2004 it was one of only a few large European countries to do so. The consequence was a large and unexpected inflow of A8 citizens coming to the UK and, partly as a reaction to this, the UK maintained restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania for the maximum period (Wright, 2010). The environment in 2014 will be quite different, as all EU countries will have opened their labour markets to workers from Bulgaria and Romania.

The patterns of Bulgarian and Romanian migration

Historically, the main European destination countries for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals have been the countries of Southern Europe, such as Italy and Spain and, to a lesser extent, Germany.

The stock of migrants in Italy and Spain from Romania is about 40 and 43 per cent of all Romanian migrants residing in another EU country. In the case of migration from Bulgaria, about 38 per cent of Bulgarians have chosen to settle in Spain, 15 per cent in Germany, 13 per cent in Greece and 11 per cent in Italy. The UK ranks fourth as a destination country for Romanian movers attracting 4 per cent of mobile Romanians, and it ranks fifth for Bulgarians--attracting about 6 per cent. Figure 1 shows the number of Bulgarians and Romanians residing in various European countries in 2009. The distributional pattern of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants across Europe has remained broadly unchanged for some time, with Italy and Spain attracting most of them. Moreover, Italy and Spain were the main destination countries for Bulgarian and Romanian migration even before the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU in 2007 (in 2006 about 80 per cent of Romanians and 54 per cent of Bulgarians resided either in Spain or in Italy, and since the early 2000s more than 50 per cent of mobile Bulgarians and Romanians have chosen either Spain or Italy as their destination countries). …

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