This week marks 10 years of mass immigration from central and eastern Europe (CEE) to the UK. Following the accession of eight ex-Communist nations to the EU on May 1 2004, hundreds of thousands of workers from countries like Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Lithuania have entered Britain in search of work. Though migration from this region was not unanticipated, its scale took most by surprise; the 2003 Home Office study that expected annual net CEE immigration of a mere 5,000 to 13,000 has passed into legend.
Ten years later one may nonetheless argue that these waves of immigration have been comparatively successful. Whatever the growing pains such groups have encountered integrating into British society, the predictions of sceptics have largely failed to materialise. Migrants from these countries have aided Britain's economy, and Polish shops and Czech pubs have seamlessly become part of Britain's multi-cultural landscape. There has also been relatively little resistance on the part of host communities. Notwithstanding a spike in support for Ukip and certain isolated incidents, British society has absorbed a very large group of newcomers with comparatively little friction. Many of us will therefore raise a glass this week to dziesięć (Polish for '10') years of immigration from these countries.
This week's anniversary and the prospect of future CEE immigration nonetheless present an opportunity to take stock of the challenges involved. Crude as UKIP's arguments may be, the party's support amongst lower socio-economic groups reflects a truth that could be grasped more readily by the mainstream. Namely that immigration on such a scale tends to disproportionately affect the poorer. Precisely because such workers tend to compete at the labour market's lower end, evidence indicates that their presence exercises a dampening effect on the wages of Britain's poorest. Concerning related developments also take place on the continent. In countries like Germany and Netherlands, as a consequence of the EU decision to allow incoming CEE firms to employ their own workers on CEE terms and conditions, concerns abound about Western European workers being undercut.
The likely continuation of migration from these countries and the recent opening of the British labour market to Bulgarian and Romanian workers, even if on balance it should be welcomed, thus raises the question of how it may take place on a more egalitarian footing. The answer here lies in Brussels. Not (as Mr. Farage and other implausible figures claim) by leaving the EU, but rather by ensuring that mass intra-EU migration is accompanied by decent EU employment regulation. One potential measure is EU minimum wage rules. If some formula for setting minimum wages on a European basis were to be established, the ability of firms to practice such wage 'dumping' would become reduced. More robust regulation of non-standard work contracts and sturdier procedures for the information and consultation of workers would also reduce the scope for the exploitation of migrant workers. Such regulation would lay the ground for a more social Europe Union, and would ensure that the fruits of a more open, multi-cultural Europe could be enjoyed by all.