Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Take this from this EU migrant: we more than pay our way and this country would be much poorer without us

When I first arrived in Britain, to complete my education at a Scottish university, I thought I would only stay three years. After all, mutual recognition of degrees among the (then) 12 European Union member states meant my qualification would be recognised back home in Italy. But then I found a job, and after that a better job, in the field I wanted to work in. Eventually I bought a place and married a Briton.
Twenty-five years later here I still am, still enjoying living in this country except for one thing. While I used to think of myself as an EU citizen, now, because of the increasingly hostile debate about the EU in this country, I discover I am in fact an immigrant - a word dripping with all sorts of negative connotations in an increasingly toxic public debate dominated and fanned by Ukip's agenda.
So are my fellow EU immigrants and I such a huge burden to this country? Today the news is dominated by a new, very serious piece of research by UCL on the fiscal effects of migration into the UK from 1995v to 2011. The report's findings are stark and unequivocal: EU migrants have consistently paid more into the system than they have taken out. Their net contribution for the past 10 years - that is the taxes they paid minus the services and benefits they received - nears £5billion.
That is no small change, 'back-of-the-sofa'-type sum. It is serious money contributing to keep British citizens in the style of welfare and service provision to which they are accustomed. If all EU immigrants left tomorrow their departure would leave a gaping hole in Britain's public finances, to say nothing of course of shrinking productivity, businesses put out of work by skills shortages at one end of the spectrum and seasonal produce left rotting in the fields at the other end.
But the UCL publication is just the latest in a long list of authoritative reports - be it from the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, or the Office for Budget Responsibility - to state that EU migrants are net contributors and not the scroungers and benefit cheats they are often depicted to be.
Nor, contrary to popular belief, are we all scrabbling on the minimum wage, unfairly competing with natives for unskilled jobs. The NHS, one of the biggest employers in the world, relies hugely on EU migration: 11 per cent of all staff in the NHS are not UK nationals, a figure that rises to 26 per cent when looking at doctors only. Among the top 10 exporters of NHS staff, five are EU countries: Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Germany.
EU migrants are generally young (85 per cent of migrants from Eastern Europe are under 40), well-educated (more EU migrants than Britons have university degrees), and serious about their job-seeking efforts (EU migrants are 45 per cent less likely to claim benefits than Britons).
And not all are here to work, of course. In 2012-13, 125,000 students from across the EU followed in my footsteps and came to the UK to study. This is good for UK universities, which make a lot of money from EU students, and good for society at large, as many with desirable skills and knowledge will go on to make a significant contribution in this country in fields like science and technology, boosting innovation.
Consider also that EU freedom of movement is a two-way street: UK citizens also travel to other EU countries to study, to work, and to retire. Thousands of UK students benefit every year from the Erasmus programme, which offers grants to study elsewhere in the EU. 14,572 Brits took advantage of that in 2013/14. More generally, according to government estimates nearly two million Brits live elsewhere in the EU, which is nearly the same amount of EU migrants living in Britain.
After months of handwringing by all political sides -and plenty of policy-based evidence making -what we desperately need now is some leadership from the mainstream parties on the issues that really make people feel worried and insecure, and make vulnerable to UKIP's base, xenophobic rhetoric.
They should deal with the real problems caused by uneven distribution of resources and services being under pressure. It's called planning and it tends to be way more effective than running around like headless chicken, latest polls in one hand, megaphone in the other.
They should come down hard on gang masters who exploit low-paid workers, whether native or immigrant. We can and should keep better track of people's movements and therefore adequately prepare so there is not an undue pressure on public services. Exit controls or registration requirements exist in other countries and could be used in Britain too. Benefit entitlements can be tightened and deliberate abuse - minuscule though it is by all accounts - can be stamped down on.
What our leaders should not do is engage with Ukip in a race to the bottom, offering potentially catastrophic solutions to a largely imaginary problem, while the sources of the real hardship, insecurity and unfairness remain largely untackled.

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