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Home Opinion Migration and the economy: Distorting the distributional blame game
EU • Labour Market • Welfare

Migration and the economy: Distorting the distributional blame game

Andrew Geddes - 26 September 2013

European governments of the left and right and the EU have all embraced – reluctantly or more enthusiastically – labour market and associated welfare choices that have shifted the distributional base of politics.  Blaming migration out front distorts the terms of debate

Migration and migrants are literally and metaphorically on the margins of European societies. Literally, because of tendencies for many migrants to work in lower skilled and status employment; metaphorically, because of the distance that often separates newcomers from the host society. Despite ─ or maybe because of ─ this marginality, there is a tendency to ascribe immense causal significance to migration that distorts debate.
So what is it that migration and migrants are supposed to cause? In a causal argument, then presumably one thing happening – migration in this case – must lead in a way that is clear and attributable to something else happening. For both the pro- and anti-migration crowds, there is some agreement that migration and migrants can be a cause of social and economic change. On this, they’re probably right, of course it can. But there is also a tendency to over-do this causal reasoning, get things the wrong way around and distort the terms of debates.

For the advocates of migration, it can be a magic bullet renewing and reinvigorating European societies and, into the bargain, resolving problems of an ageing population. On the other side of the argument, migration threatens both labour markets and welfare states, but worse than this, can be corrosive of national self-understandings, of the various components of the national glue that holds things together. On both counts, the result is a polarised debate about migration with tendencies to exaggerateion and difficulty finding any common ground.

In their Independent on Sunday article, Lodewijk Asscher and David Goodhart ask many of the key questions and give a Dutch twist to a familiar debate when they refer to the potential for the dykes to burst. The metaphor hardly needs explaining: the submerging of a whole society.  

An underlying problem is the causal significance attributed to migration and its corrosive effects. Following this logic, migration, in its various forms – both by those who move as EU citizens and those who come from outside the EU – erodes European welfare states. Particularly important are the effects on lower skilled employment and the nexus that links labour markets to welfare states. There’s an important point here.  While the effects of migration are generally positive – small scale, it’s true, but broadly positive – the distribution of costs and benefits present a far more complex picture. As in any distributional game, migration leads to winners and losers. Amongst the winners are the relatively cash-rich and time-poor middle classes who can benefit from the services that migrants provide. Losers can be those at the lower end of the labour market, or outside of it altogether, who are out-competed by migrants willing to trade lower employment status for higher income and the prospect of labour market mobility in the country they move to.

But can these effects be linked to migration? Is it the migration, stupid?  This bounces us back to the point about causality. The causal logic at play in the kind of argument sketched above goes along the following lines: various types of migration, whether by those moving within the EU or those coming from non-EU countries, introduce new elements of competition into the labour market and create new kinds of distributional politics that go to the heat of the labour market-welfare state nexus.

But is it really the migration that is driving these changes? There was a large wave of migration linked to EU enlargement in 2004, but part of the reason for this was that only Ireland, Sweden and the UK opened their labour markets to EU citizens from the 8 central European countries that joined in May 2004. This distorted the resultant migration with powerful effects on the UK, in particular, which was the destination of choice for hundreds of thousands of people. So profound have their effects been that it’s hard to remember how people in the UK used to get a cup of coffee at a railway station or deal with a domestic plumbing crisis.

This movement within the EU is of course a key component of ‘the European project’. The whole enterprise centres on the ‘four freedoms’ – free movement for, in rising order of controversy: goods, capital, services and people.  The key problem is that mobility within the EU for people using the right to free movement has risen, to put it technically, from ‘hardly any’ to ‘some, but hardly a flood’. In 2011, for example, 1.3 million people moved from one EU member state to another. That’s a pretty small percentage of an EU population of more than 500 million. So, while this is an important social change, it may help to develop a stronger sense of European identity, it may have some damaging effects or it may do both those things; but it seems a bit of a leap to argue that this, coupled with migration from outside the EU is an existential threat and that the dykes will burst.

Perhaps there is an is an alternative way of thinking about migration and its effects that starts from a different place, employs a different logic and ends up with a different way of seeing migration and its effects on distributional questions that are central to the future of European labour markets and welfare states.  It has a different starting point, which is that migration is epiphenomenal; it happens because of something else.  

What is this something else? The answer is pretty clear: it’s the economy, stupid. We have the migration that markets make. European governments of the left and right and the EU have all embraced – reluctantly or more enthusiastically – labour market and associated welfare choices that have shifted the distributional base of politics. Just as migration in the 1950s and 1960s was a product of post-war reconstruction, then contemporary migration cannot be detached from the neo-liberal basis that informs regulatory and distributional choices.  This is the context within which migration occurs and within which it should be understood. The focus should be squarely and absolutely on the consequences of these choices and for that part of this debate that relates to migrations, migrants and the people in the places they move too.  

So, if this is the different starting point, then how does this address the basic question of how we make migration work for our societies? The key thing is not to detach it from the more fundamental choices about labour markets and welfare states that make migration. Migration has happened, is happening and will continue to happen because of other things. But it’s not the case that labour markets and welfare states change because of migration. Rather, it’s the other way around. Migration changes because of the ways in which labour markets and welfare states change. The regulation of migration is intimately connected to the ways in which labour markets are or are not regulated and to the positive and perverse effects of welfare states.

So, what does this mean? Above all, it means getting things the right way around. Migration is important and we need serious and sensible discussion about it, but it’s not the migration; it has been, is and will continue to be the economy, stupid.  These are the issues that the left needs to get right otherwise the focus is on the symptoms and not the cause.  
Andrew Geddes is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield. He is author of Britain and the European Union.

This is a contribution to the Policy Network series Orange Alert and Red Lines: The Freedom of Movement of Labour in Europe.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Andrew Geddes , Opinion , Immigration , Xenophobia , racism , populism , extremism , mainstream , welfare , social welfare , citizenship , Democracy , Election , Vote , Voting , Economy , Centre-left , Centre-right , Left , Right , Far left , Far right , Trust , Political Trust , Morality , Financial Crisis , Economic Crisis , Banking Crisis , Debt Crisis , Sovereign Debt Crisis , Sovereign Debt , Financial , Economic , Banking , Crisis , Austerity , Europe , EU , European Union ,

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