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“Benefit Tourism” and Migration Policy in the U.K.: The Construction of Policy Narratives

Luhman, Meghan (2015) “Benefit Tourism” and Migration Policy in the U.K.: The Construction of Policy Narratives. [Conference Proceedings] (Submitted)

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    Introduction: In 2004, ten new member states, eight from Central and Eastern Europe (the socalled “A8” countries), joined the European Union. European Union citizens have the right to freely move throughout and reside in (subject to conditions) all member states. At the time, though thirteen out of fifteen existing E.U. member states put temporary restrictions on migrants from these new member states, the U.K. decided to give these migrants immediate full access to the labor market. While in France, for example, fears about the “Polish plumber” taking French jobs became a hot topic of debate and caused the French to implement temporary controls, in the U.K. Tony Blair highlighted “the opportunities of accession” to fill in gaps in the U.K. economy ( The Guardian, 27 April 2004). Blair’s Conservative opponents had also largely supported enlargement in the 1990s, noting the expansion of the E.U. would increase trade and “encourage stability and prosperity” (HC Deb 21 May 2003 vol 405 cc1021). The U.K. was hailed by members of the European Parliament as welcoming, and in spite of some fears of strain on social services and benefits, studies showed that the migrants had been a net benefit for the U.K. (BBC, 5 November 2014). In 2013, however, it was a different story, as temporary movement controls on migrants from Bulgaria and Romania, which had joined the E.U. in 2007, were set to expire on January 1, 2014. Concerns about “benefits tourism,” or the assumption that migrants were being drawn to the U.K. by a generous welfare state, seemingly abruptly arrived at the forefront of the political debate. The ConservativeLiberal Democrat coalition government led by David Cameron moved 2 to further restrict the benefits available to E.U. migrants by introducing domestic policy changes such as lengthening the wait period to three months before migrants could access jobseekers’ allowance benefits, reducing by 50% the amount of time for which E.U. migrants in Britain are eligible to receive certain benefits, introducing requirements such as a burden of proof on migrants to show they had a “genuine prospect of finding work,” and rendering E.U. migrants ineligible for housing benefits (Wintour 2013). In addition to these changes which were enacted in 2014, Home Secretary Theresa May proposed the extension of transitory controls for E.U. migrants and changes to E.U. free movement rules. In 2014, Cameron even threatened that the U.K. might exit the E.U. absent changes which would allow the U.K. to “cut E.U. migration” and further restrict welfare benefits for E.U. migrants (Hutton and O’Donnell 2014). In the space of ten years, Cameron’s party had gone from being proenlargement to threatening to leave the E.U., or at least demanding the renegotiation of a fundamental tenet of E.U. membership, over the issue of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants. What prompted this significant change? What made Bulgarian and Romanian migrants different from Polish, Hungarian, or Czech ones, who had all been granted immediate access to the labor market? Why did the “immigration” issue shift in political debate from nonE. U. migrants and asylumseekers to the free movement of E.U. citizens, even despite early indications that the number of new Bulgarian and Romanian arrivals would be relatively small, and the fact that E.U. migrants still account for a lower proportion of total migration than nonE. U. migrants? Why did the narrative of “benefit tourism” drive policy change, despite evidence that migrants claim benefits at a lower rate than U.K. nationals? 3 This chapter looks at the perception of potential Bulgarian and Romanian migration to the E.U. as a policy problem and argues that “benefits tourism” emerged as policy narrative connected to E.U. migrants as the 2004 enlargement of the E.U. approached. As a narrative, benefit tourism drew on the context of Euroskepticism and the stigmatization of both immigrants and welfare recipients as threats to British values, the latter which was heightened in the context of austerity. This chapter draws on recent work in Political Science on the construction of policy narratives (Boswell, Geddes, Scholten 2011). A “policy narrative” is a claim which sets out beliefs about policy problems and appropriate solutions (Boswell, Geddes, Scholten 2011: 1). With regard to migration policy, states’ anxieties about the perceived inability to control migration and uncertainties about the causes of this phenomenon have meant political actors have competed over policy narratives (Ibid.: 3). Which set of elements composes a narrative at which time depends on contingent political processes and the ability of political actors to utilize ideas to construct policy regimes to solve problems, to justify the maintenance of an existing policy regime, or to destabilize an existing policy regime. This paper explains the processes by which benefits tourism as a narrative emerged, became linked to E.U. migrants and justified policy changes such as the restriction of benefits and the imposition of temporary controls on freedom of movement, and has now been linked to questions of whether the U.K. should exit the E.U. or whether fundamental changes are needed to E.U. law and institutions to alter freedom of movement.

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    Item Type: Conference Proceedings
    Subjects for non-EU documents: EU policies and themes > Policies & related activities > Third Pillar/JHA/PJCC/AFSJ > migration Policy
    EU policies and themes > Policies & related activities > tourism
    Countries > U.K.
    Subjects for EU documents: UNSPECIFIED
    EU Series and Periodicals: UNSPECIFIED
    EU Annual Reports: UNSPECIFIED
    Conference: European Union Studies Association (EUSA) > Biennial Conference > 2015 (14th), March 4-7, 2015
    Depositing User: Phil Wilkin
    Official EU Document: No
    Language: English
    Date Deposited: 22 May 2018 15:14
    Number of Pages: 46
    Last Modified: 22 May 2018 15:14

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