Shortly after assuming power in May 2010, the government of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron began setting caps on immigration levels, ultimately promising to reduce net migration into the U.K. to fewer than 100,000 people per year by the 2015 general election. The focus on immigration was unsurprising; migration is highly politicized, particularly near elections and during economic crises. But the overlooked and crucial question was how effective a cap on immigration could be given the European Union’s free movement provisions. The U.K. could indeed limit non-EU immigration by decreasing the number of visas issued. However, there was not much that the government could do to control the numbers of EU migrants who came to the U.K.
The neglect of intra-EU migration was short-lived. With the full lifting of labor market restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian citizens in January 2014 came debates about EU migrants’ access to welfare benefits. Apocalyptic predictions that waves of migrants from these two countries would flood other EU labor markets and take advantage of their public services have largely failed to materialize. Nevertheless, in March 2014, the U.K. introduced new provisions: EU migrants can only access out-of-job benefits if their earnings have been equivalent to about $250 per week for three months, and EU migrants are no longer eligible for housing benefits.
These kinds of measures are by no means limited to the U.K. There has been a backlash against EU migrants in other countries too. In Belgium, the government sent letters to 2,712 EU citizens residing in the country—mainly Romanians, Bulgarians, Spaniards and Italians—asking them to leave, saying that they were putting a strain on the welfare system. This is not the first time such letters have been sent, but their numbers have more than tripled in the past three years. The Belgian government has justified its actions on the basis of a 2004 European directive on free movement, which states that persons residing in another member state should not become an unreasonable burden on social services.