Just a few days ago 29million Romanians and Bulgarians gained the right to settle in any part of the European Union, including Britain and Ireland. Although there are fears many will make their way here, the impact is unlikely to be as significant as in 2004 when the UK opened its borders to people from eight new member states including Poland and Hungary. Then, Britain was among the first to waive restrictions, now it is among the last. Many of the Romanians and Bulgarians interested in moving abroad have already done so. Still, it has sparked a debate about whether the EU's freedom of movement, entitling EU residents to live in any of the member states should be subject to restrictions.
It might seem ironic that while many are concerned about the impact of freedom of movement, it was hailed as the EU's greatest achievement by 62% of respondents in a Eurobarometer survey last year. It offers work seekers from troubled EU countries the opportunity to find a job elsewhere. It also offers benefits to the host country as a study released by the European Commission in October showed that migrants are most likely to be net contributors to the state's budget. However, they can also put a strain on local services, such as housing and education.
These concerns led David Cameron to suggest on 27 November that there should be limits on freedom of movement. Not only did he propose restricting access to social services, he also said that only citizens of member states that are sufficiently rich - as measured by GDP per inhabitant - should have the right to move to another part of the EU, while countries should also have the option of limiting the number of migrants coming in each year.
To turn this into official EU policy, Cameron will have to find supporters within the EU's Council. Many countries such as the Netherlands and France already share his concerns about migration. However, he would also have to convince the European Parliament.
In the past MEPs have been reluctant to let member states tinker with freedom of movement for political reasons. Last June, they set strict requirements for member states to temporarily reintroduce border controls, stating that migration by itself can never be considered a threat to national security. In November the EP's employment committee also approved a resolution providing Europeans working abroad with a suitable means of redress if they suffer discrimination; setting up contact and information points in member states. This text is the basis for the Parliament's mandate for negotiations with national governments in the Council.
At the same time MEPs are concerned about the challenges posed by freedom of movement. Last October they debated a report advocating a new approach to migration, focusing on quality rather than quantity. While highly talented workers with skillsets missing in our economies should still be attracted, more thought should be given to how to successfully integrate them in host countries, before they even arrive.
As only some 3% of Europeans live permanently in another member state, some MEPs questioned whether migration affects the welfare system much, while others praised the possibility for people from troubled countries to find employment elsewhere. However, many agreed it was high time for an open and frank discussion on it.
With both the European Parliament and member states increasingly looking into migration, perhaps there has never been a better time for a rethink of people's right to find a new life abroad.
Photo by Tom Godber, released under Creative Commons licence