Ever since 2004, when the European Union suddenly grew by 10 countries, most of them in poor Eastern Europe, a debate has been raging in the United Kingdom as to whether too many immigrants have flooded into the country. Hundreds of thousands of workers, primarily from Poland, took advantage of the fact that the UK, along with Ireland and Sweden, opted to immediately open its borders to citizens of the new EU countries.
Now, though, the debate may be changing. Indeed, should the economic downturn prove shortlived the UK and other Western European countries may eventually be wondering how they can attract more workers from the east. The outflow of laborers from countries like Poland may already be reversing.
According to recent survey conducted by the Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) in Warsaw, only half as many Poles are willing to work abroad as in 2004. Furthermore, UK government statistics indicate that the numbers of work permits issued to Eastern European immigrants dropped by 10 percent in 2007 against 2006. In the first quarter of this year, the number of permit applicants under the UK's Worker Registration Scheme -- which was set up in 2004 to regulate the inflow of workers from the new member states -- was the lowest it has been since the first quarter of 2005.
"The trend is just getting started," said Justyna Frelak of CBOS. "But it is becoming quite clear."
A recent report issued by the British think tank Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) also indicates that, in addition to fewer migrants heading west for work, many of those who did pursue the promise of higher pay and plentiful work in Western European countries have now headed back home. Some 50 percent of those who moved to the UK from so-called "A-8 countries" -- Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 -- have already returned home, the report found.
"Our findings challenge the widely-held assumptions that most of those who have arrived are still here, that more will come and most will stay permanently," said Danny Sriskandarajah, who heads up migration research for the IPPR, in a statement. "It is a question of when, not if the Great East European migration slows. With few migrants in and more migrants out, the UK seems to be experiencing turnstiles, not floodgates."
The reversing trend is most obvious in the UK and Ireland as well as in Sweden. Those three countries were the only older EU countries -- known as the EU 15 -- which opted to open their doors immediately to new EU members. Other countries, including Germany, opted to take advantage of EU rules allowing countries to slowly open up to migrants from new members over a seven-year period.
News of the slow reversal is sure to be welcome in capitals across Eastern Europe and in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Many countries there have experienced major labor shortages as young professionals and laborers opted for higher western salaries. Indeed, fully 3.3 percent of Lithuania's population headed for Britain and Ireland following EU accession, as did 2.5 percent of Latvians. Around 1.5 million Poles have worked in UK, Ireland or Sweden in the last four years.
Companies in Eastern Europe have struggled to find enough people to fill the gap. Even programs aimed at urging emigrants to return home proved only moderately successful.
Economic realities, though, seem to be having success where government-sponsored carrots did not. Growth rates in Eastern Europe have far outpaced those in Western Europe in recent years and wages have increased apace. In Slovakia, average pay rose by 7.2 percent in 2007 amid 11.6 percent growth. In Latvia and Romania, wages are likewise rocketing upward. Meanwhile, a slowing worldwide economy makes economic migration to Western Europe less of a sure bet.
Surveys have also shown that many never intended to stay abroad long or decided to cut short their stays for personal reasons. According to the IPPR report, "the vast majority of Polish migrants come to the UK for economic reasons but leave because they miss home or want to be with their friends and family."
Whether the flow of returnees will be enough to ease the labor shortage in Europe's east remains to be seen. Wages are still far higher in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe on average, and extremely low birth rates in many Eastern European countries mean that the future looks old and gray rather than young and dynamic. Indeed, the World Bank in July urged countries like Poland, Bulgaria and the Baltic states to open up their labor markets to immigrants.
"There is no question that immigration will be needed to fill labor shortages," Pradeep Mitra, head World Bank economist for Europe and Central Asia, told reporters in July. "The trade off is: accept migration in a regulated way or don't be serious about converging with EU 15 living standards."