Opinion: Putting the facts into Britain’s fraudulent EU migration debate

New Year’s Day 2014 has become an almost totemic date in the British political and media calendar over recent months. Well, that is when the whole of Bulgaria and Romania are due to turn up uninvited on Britain’s doorstep. Isn’t it?

Rarely has a single event been so buried in misconceptions, misunderstandings, and downright misinformation. It all started with the Eastleigh by-election, where UKIP claimed that ‘next year, the EU will allow 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians (i.e. the entire population of the two countries) to come to the UK’.

They were effectively testing their electoral masterplan: tying a dull but widely misunderstood issue of limited public interest (Europe) to an explosive one of wide public interest (immigration). Blame the latter on the former, make up some numbers, and you’ve hit the anti-European jackpot.

The tactic proved successful enough in Eastleigh – notwithstanding the Lib Dems’ ultimate triumph – to force the Conservative Party into a game of catch-up for the rest of the year – without ever being able to beat UKIP at their own game.

Sadly, few have paused to question this narrative, in which facts have been conspicuously absent. Instead, we are having a fraudulent debate, where perceptions triumph, themselves stoked to the maximum by populists and opportunists.

A survey this summer found that the British public overestimates the number of immigrants in the country by 238% on average: they put the figure at 31% of the population, while the true figure is 13% – and that for EU migrants just 3.6%.

A Daily Express ‘poll’ of its readers found that ‘98% demand ban on new migrants’. With the Express’ relentless xenophobic headlines this year, it was a wonder they didn’t reach a North Korean result of 100%.

Despite all this hyperbole, Britain’s border controls will remain exactly the same on 1 January as the day before. We won’t join the border-free Schengen area and we will still have passport checks. Non-British EU citizens will be subject to the same limits on their residence rights as before – with the possibility of expulsion if they abuse the system.

The sole change is that Bulgarians and Romanians will no longer need a work permit in the UK and eight other EU countries. They already had this right in 19 other EU countries, as well as non-EU Norway and Iceland. The change comes late: they have already been EU citizens for seven years, but were forced to wait for their full rights by the UK and others, despite our strong support for their EU membership.

Our responsibility as Liberal Democrats is to put facts into the debate. Let’s debate the reality rather than a fraudulent perception.

* Giles Goodall is a Lib Dem European Parliamentary Candidate for South East England.

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Paul in Twickenham 31st Dec '13 - 3:51pm

    Does the electorate care for the facts (whatever they may be)?

    First, the facts will be drowned out by a mashup of dubious statistics and outright economies of the actualite in the tabloids.

    Second, the facts don’t really feel quite true, do they? You say that only 4% of the population are EU migrants but even to me (and I support open borders) it feels like a lot more – it certainly was on the jubilee line train I have just taken from Canary Wharf.

    Thirdly people don’t always act in their own rational best interest : I’m thinking here of the oft-reported data that more people would rather have a fiver today than a tenner in a month’s time.

    Appealing to statistics and rationalism is all very noble but it won’t elect many MEPs.

  • Eddie Sammon 31st Dec '13 - 4:31pm

    It’s wrong to smear the anti immigration debate as fraudulent with an equally fraudulent pro immigration debate (the links in the article).

    People might talk about facts, but with economics we are not often dealing with facts. Nobody can predict the future economic effects, just because something was good in the past doesn’t mean it will be good in the future.

    If this is what our parliamentary candidates look like then we are in trouble. Just cheerleaders for the EU.

  • Daniel Henry 31st Dec '13 - 4:37pm

    No one’s saying that getting the facts out there will magically produce perfect results Paul, but at least it will give people a chance to hear the truth.

    Letting the myths run riot without challenge would be the worst thing possible.

  • Eddie Sammon 31st Dec '13 - 4:50pm

    Treating economic statistics from the past as facts for what is good for the economy for the future is partly what causes crashes. It just provides politicians with an excuse to disengage their brain and close down debate with some stats. Evidence is fine, but it should NEVER be presented as fact. Science is fact, economics is not science.

  • The reason for the success of the disinformation campaign is not only UKIP strategy or the express , but the Murdoch disinformation and deception machinery. Look at the number of times the political leaders of UK appear in Telegraph.co.uk: (using the search of the site)

    Nigel Farage: 15100
    Clegg: 1800
    Cameron 4800
    Nick Griffin 1500


    Then it is clear , this is the cause. The large scale deception orchestrated by Murdoch deception machinery in order to create a rift between British people and their fellow Europeans

  • Giles Goodall 31st Dec '13 - 8:28pm

    @Paul: You’re right that the tabloids don’t generally much care for facts, but that doesn’t mean voters don’t have a right to know them or that politicians should blithely ignore them. The point is that a bunch of vocal anti-Europeans, aided and abetted by certain newspapers, have succeeded in constructing a completely fake debate based on a premise which is simply not true (that our borders will open up on 1 Jan). I suggest you take a look at this very good piece in the Indy who explains how David Cameron does this on a fairly regular basis: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/inside-westminster-if-the-prime-minister-wants-to-change-the-eu-he-has-to-stop-making-enemies-9018943.html

    Re: numbers, these are the official stats from the last census, the most authoritative source. A quick glance at the figures for London shows that 8.8% of the population in Tower Hamlets (where Canary Wharf is) are non-UK EU citizens, unsurprisingly higher than the average for England & Wales.

    I agree with you that facts alone are not enough to win a campaign – of course we need a strong narrative which appeals emotionally too, but that’s clearly not an argument against basing our debate on the reality rather than a UKIP-fed fantasy.

    @Eddie: what fraudulent debate are you talking about exactly? The stats I refer to are not economic: they’re from the national census. In any case, I’d trust an economist over a fantasist any day.

    @Daniel & Tony: Thanks!

  • Yes, there are certainly a lot of hyperbolic statements flying around from the likes of UKIP and the Express. However, the truly relevant facts are not easy to come by. Giles Goodall cannot actually tell us how many Romanians and Bulgarians will come here. He can only provide some background factual information on what the administrative changes are, together with the implicit inference that it would be a good guess to assume a low rate of influx. Well, last time the government made such a guess, about Polish immigration in 2005, they underestimated by a factor of about 40!

    When liberals talk about a “fraudulent” debate, aren’t they being a little bit hyperbolic themselves? Wouldn’t a little more cautious language, and a little less bombast, go down better with the public at large?

  • Yorkshire Guidon 1st Jan '14 - 8:13am

    British companies are advertising for Romanians and Bulgarians to work in the UK already including, apparently, taxi drivers.

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Jan '14 - 12:05pm

    Giles, I don’t know who the fantasist is meant to be, but even economists such as Mark Carney have said mass immigration was probably not good for the economy.


    Regardless, the debate needs to be conducted in a much more thoughtful way then mudslinging justified on short term stats. Anyone can borrow a load of money from China, dig a hole and temporarily increase GDP.

    I was too harsh in my criticism yesterday, so I am genuinely sorry for that – I am sure you are a very good candidate, I just think from a constructive criticism point of view that Lib Dem MEPs and candidates often sound like they are representing the EU, rather than their constituents, and I think that needs to change a bit.


  • Eddie Sammon 1st Jan '14 - 12:22pm

    Well said David Allen. We don’t agree on a lot of policy details, but at least we value honest and high quality debate (most of the time).

    Unfortunately, as I complain about Lib Dem MEPs sounding more like representatives of the EU than the people (a claim I’ve made before), Rebecca Taylor comes in banging the drum for EU migration without consideration that maybe the people have a point.

    I still think our MEPs are good (and I much liked the pro e-cig campaign), but if we are in the game of continuous improvement then behaviour that we think lose votes should be pointed out.

    Best wishes

  • Jayne Mansfield 1st Jan '14 - 1:36pm

    Eddie Sammon
    I don’t think that Rebecca Taylor is banging the drum for EU immigration without considering that other people may have a point.

    People who are opposed to free movement within the EU and opposed to Bulgarian and Romanian immigration have made their point very forcefully and continue to do so. Are you suggesting that the counter argument should not be heard? I find her, far too infrequent posts on here quite refreshing.

    The Lib Dem party has always been the most pro EU party as far as I am concerned. Why would it suddenly lose votes for arguing the case for one of the founding principles of the EU? It doesn’t make sense to me. A last minute decision to feed the hysteria regarding Bulgarian and Romanian does your party no credit at all.

    You have lost votes , try accessing emergency NHS care on this bank holiday if you want to know one of the reasons.

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Jan '14 - 2:46pm

    Jayne, I am not suggesting that the counter argument for immigration should not be heard, but I am suggesting that tackling a one sided argument with a one sided argument is not what we should be doing. It makes us look like extremists and our job is to get elected and not to simply balance up debate.

    I am not saying we will lose votes by being pro EU, it is just that I want the Lib Dems to win a majority, so if we are in favour of the EU then we need to address the public’s concerns, which I don’t think we are doing effectively.

    I’m in favour of improving the NHS.

  • @Paul, last week, I heard an elderly gentlemen speak of his distaste for the London underground due to all the coloureds on it; despite how repugnant such a comment was to me, I actually found still found it less distasteful than your’s because at least he was open about where he stood. Furthermore, may I ask how you know those people are EU immigrants (expatiates)?

    Well said Rebecca.

  • David Allen 1st Jan '14 - 4:53pm

    Rebecca Taylor – I agree with everything you say, except for your comment “we can be certain the numbers will be infinitely lower than 2004”. We can reasonably expect the numbers to be quite small, and many of the consequences good ones. That’s as much as one can reasonably say.

    To tell those opposed to immigration that “we can be certain the numbers will be infinitely lower than 2004” is just gross over-confidence in an uncertain prediction. Why say it? Do you think we should deliberately try to antagonise those who don’t agree with us on this issue?

  • Giles Goodall 2nd Jan '14 - 12:02am

    @David: I’d be prepared to wager that they certainly will be much lower than 2004 for lots of reasons. In 2004, ten countries gained the right to work in all jobs without permits in just two countries. This time just two countries gain the same rights (seven years late) in nine others (including the UK) but already had the same right in all 19 other EU members. When Ireland removed the remaining restrictions on Bulgarians & Romanians last year, not much happened. And the economic situation was completely different in 2004 to now, there were a lot more jobs going in the UK. That’s also why hundreds of thousands of Poles have gone home since too, most only stay for short periods – which is why it’s wrong to talk about ‘migration’ in the first place – they’re mobile workers, not migrants (though some may of course choose to stay long term – just as Brits in Spain have).

  • Alex Macfie 2nd Jan '14 - 8:49am

    If the public “put the figure at 31% of the population, while the true figure is 13%”, then they are overestimating by 138%, not by 238% as the article says. The number 31 is 238% of 13 (13×2.38≈31), but it is 138% more than 13. To make it simpler to understand, what do you think it would mean if it was said that the value was overestimated by 100%? That is, what is 100% of 13? And what is 100% more than 13?

  • David Allen 2nd Jan '14 - 2:13pm

    Giles Goodall said “I’d be prepared to wager that they certainly will be much lower than 2004”

    Er, only halfway back to sensible, I fear. When you say “wager”, you indicate that you do realise you are only making an informed guess. But then you spoil it all by adding the word “certainly”!

    I would go for your “wager”. The chances are that the numbers will be quite small. But that’s only a best guess.

    Yes, the tabloids are encouraging paranoid fears. But so, to some extent, are those who are overly dismissive. Telling fearful people that you have no intention of doing anything to protect them should their worst fears be realised, does not make them less fearful!

  • David Allen 2nd Jan '14 - 2:35pm

    On this question of the skewed sample (only 13% of the population are actually immigrants, but people guess it’s 31%), I would argue that there are several reasons for the misconception.

    If you ask people how many of the population are immigrants, it isn’t easy to make a good guess. I suspect the technique many people would hit upon would be to think about walking down a busy street in town, and try to visualise what fraction of non-white faces they would expect to see. They would do that, not because they were (necessarily) racist, but because it would be a reasonably practical way to make the guess.

    It would also be a rather bad way to do it. First, it would ignore all the quiet villages and suburbs which are still mainly untouched by recent immigration, and of course contain in total a lot of people. Secondly, it would count anybody with a black or brown face as an immigrant – although, of course, many such people are native born.

    It would be interesting to know if the public would make more accurate guesses if they were asked “what percentage of the population is non-white?” rather than “what percentage are immigrants?” I suspect they’d get closer to the truth in that case.

    Sure, the tabloids distort the facts and harm community relations. However, I’m not sure they are mainly to blame for this public misconception.

  • Paul in Twickenham 2nd Jan '14 - 2:59pm

    @Liberal Al – I fear that you misunderstood my message for which I am doubtless to blame. The point I was attempting to make was that I was on a jubilee line train from Canary Wharf at rush hour. When the train arrives at Canary Wharf it is empty. When it leaves it is full. The occupants are the workers in the banks. It was Christmas eve and people were talking to their colleagues, in a wide variety of languages. That is the nature of The City. It depends on the availability of highly talented workers from all over the EU. We depend upon these skilled workers. I am delighted they are here. But when I hear a statistic like “3.6%” it simply does not square with my experience at all. We need a more positive message than “but there are so few of them”.

  • Well said, Ian. It annoys me no end when people hear someone speaking another language and instantaneously think this means they are an ‘immigrant’. As you said, they are likely to be tourists or even, shock of horrors, native-born here. I was previously speaking Chinese while on my mobile with a friend; a fellow passenger on the bus said something rather unkind about the Polish. In response to this, I kindly explained that I am English and that I was speaking Standard Chinese, not Polish. I then was told that if I am English, I should speak English. Strangely, this gentlemen it seems was from Portugal.

    David, while I do think your theory could go someway towards explaining where these misconceptions come from; one problem with it being the main one is that in most parts of the UK, if you walk down a street, less than 13% of people – let alone 30% – would be non-white. What would be interesting to see is the correlation between an area’s level of immigration and the level of concern that area’s populous has about immigration. In my experience, areas of low immigration tend to be the ones with the highest level of concern. Which is why I believe (but cannot yet prove) that it is the misconceptions people get from the media that leads to these mistaken beleifs.

  • Fair enough, Paul. I now understand what you are saying. I do apologise for misunderstanding.

  • Malcolm Todd 4th Jan '14 - 9:21am

    In passing, can I nominate Paul in Twickenham and Liberal Al for some sort of award for most civilised resolution (on both sides) of a misunderstanding?
    It’s not just a matter of politesse – it’s vitally important (and surprisingly difficult) to recognise, first, that someone can genuinely misunderstand your point and respond accordingly without necessarily being either dishonest or stupid; and second, that one can simply accept a correction offered in that spirit without embarking on a lengthy justification of one’s own original misinterpretation.
    So, you know, well done.

  • To Giles Goodall – It does our case no good at all to misrepresent what UKIP are actually stating. All they are stating is that 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians have the right to come here. Nowhere, as far as I can see are they stating that all 29 million would actually come. It does our cause a disservice to misrepresent or permit to be misrepresented what they are actually stating.

    If, as we do believe that economic migration into the UK is a good thing, that on the whole migrants want to have jobs rather than cause a nuisance, (begging, stealing, violent crime etc) then we should be bold enough to say so. If we cannot make the economic case clearly and unambiguously, then we are in serious trouble. It is a mistake also to write that ‘ a dull but widely misunderstood issue of limited public interest (Europe)’. The public is very much interested in Europe, whether you want it to be so or not. We should avoid deluding ourselves, if we want to connect with the electorate, they are good at sniffing out insincerity.

  • Giles Goodall 4th Jan '14 - 6:41pm

    @Joe King: UKIP’s leaflets state (and you can see the actual thing linked from my article) that the ‘EU will allow 29 million … to come to the UK’, so the message they are seeking to pass is pretty clear. I’ve spoken to voters on the doorstep who actually quote this figure and believe this will happen. On such logic we could state that the EU is allowing 63 million Brits to flood Spain or 9.5 million Swedes to pour into the UK – clearly nonsense in each case. By the way, UKIP couldn’t even get the total population of Bulgaria and Romania right – there are only 27 million people living in the two countries combined.

    Free movement for people in the European Union is an essential component of the Single Market which Britain was instrumental in creating and which is crucial to the British economy. You’ll see that I make a very clear case for this in my previous article linked from the last paragraph here.

    As for public interest in Europe, you’ll see from any poll that voters consistently rank it as one of the least important issues facing the country. In Ipsos-MORI’s polling data covering the whole of 2013, Europe ranks as the least important issue facing the country, in 11th place behind things like the economy, education, housing and pensions. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a small core of voters obsessed by the issue (who unsurprisingly mostly also say they’ll vote UKIP), although even among UKIP supporters it ranks as only the 5th most important issue. It’s a different story with immigration, which ranks 2nd overall and 1st for UKIP supporters. That’s why UKIP’s strategy to confuse voters by conflating the two has been such a success – and why the facts are needed more than ever.

  • Giles, thankyou for replying to my questions. I suppose what I am really trying to ask is how do we tackle the UKIP message? Their popularity is not declining any time soon. They are odds on favourites to do well in the Euro elections. People are worried about those coming and taking jobs and undercutting wages. We should be concerned about gangmasters and poor treatment of immigrant workers. How can we put across a straightforward and coherent message to allay these fears? How do we get a handle on UKIP and their message? As a practical suggestion, can we enact legislation that low pay jobs are advertised only in the UK? Or at least that they cannot be advertised only abroad?

  • Pick one thing that UKIP gets clearly, consistently, and obviously wrong, and hammer them on it every single day. Consistency of message is the big thing, simplicity the next.

  • Steve Comer 5th Jan '14 - 2:13am

    The trouble with putting the emphasis on facts is that in runs against the old adage (beloved of the Daily Excess and Daily Fail) of “never let the facts get in the way of the argument!”
    Rebecca Taylor makes a good point about the number of UK Citizens working abroad. When I helped on a European Movement stall a few weeks ago I was surprised ho many people we spoke to had sons, daughters and other relatives and friends living and/or working in another EU country. So if one country pulls the drawbridge up, retaliation could follow. David-1 is also right, don’t attack UKIP with logic and a shopping list, find 2-3 policy areas where they are wrong and attack them on that. We could also attack them for raking in salary and expenses when not doing the MEP job properly (the expenses scandal is still an issue for many voters, even if not so powerful as in 2009).
    We cannot ignore UKIP (or even hope they will just damage the Tories) we have to take them on, just as have the BNP in the north west.

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