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When the EU expanded back in 2004, many EU countries chose to impose limits on the right to work for citizens of the new countries. Likewise when Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007, the UK has decided to restrict the immigration of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens until 2014.

But why didn't the UK use the 7-year transitional period for work permits in 2004? Or perhaps it's only obvious in hindsight that this would've been the right decision?

  • I don't know if this is the answer, but informing the actions of the Blair government at that time, was undoubtedly a fear of movement to greater political integration, among the older members of the EU, centrally of France and Germany. All UK governments are acutely aware that political integration is immensely difficult to sell in Britain. Perhaps Tony Blair thought that encouraging the consolidation of the former COMECON countries, would put a brake on deeper political union. – WS2 May 11 '17 at 23:31
  • So it wasn't evil Brussels that allowed the Polish plumbers in so soon? – Reinstate Monica - M. Schröder May 12 '17 at 14:21
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In short policymakers didn't realise how big it was going to be. The operating assumption was that other EU countries would not be making use of it so the UK's projections were for 5,000-13,000 migrants from the expansion per year. However the vast majority of other EU countries decided to utilise the restrictions (from memory only Sweden and Ireland), and all the migrants who would have dispersed across the EU went to the UK. The UK recieved 129,000 migrants in 2004 & 2005 from the expansion countries.

http://theconversation.com/the-huge-political-cost-of-blairs-decision-to-allow-eastern-european-migrants-unfettered-access-to-britain-66077

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/mar/24/how-immigration-came-to-haunt-labour-inside-story

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Contemporary news reports suggest that the administration believed that a full work permit scheme would have been unnecessarily expensive and cumbersome to operate, and that immigrants would help fill some of the existing skills shortages, without impacting significantly on wages or the welfare state. There is certainly evidence that the initial tranche acted to do this, although the effect on wages as a whole is more debatable (see here versus here) and immigration almost certainly had a statistically significant chilling effect on wages for unskilled labour.

As to whether this was the right decision, that gets much more complicated, (not least in how to define right in this context without devolving into opinion) since even if a work permit scheme had been implemented, it would have ended by now, and it would not have prevented migration from other EU countries, or directly affected immigration from outside the EU, and not all attitudes towards migrants come from rational reactions to simple numbers.

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