This weekend, people across Europe will commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They will celebrate the end of communism in Europe, the liberation of millions from totalitarianism, and the opening up of a continent to free movement between nations.
In Britain, however, the politics of migration has become grubbier. Everybody is now obsessed with immigration – that is, how to cut it. Where once we welcomed Polish pilots who had fought bravely in the Battle of Britain, now we fear that Polish benefit tourists will drain our tax coffers.
But a new report by researchers at University College London destroys that myth. Between 1995 and 2011, immigrants from the EU paid £4.4bn more in tax than they took out in services, which is even more remarkable when you remember that Britons themselves represented a big net cost to the Exchequer over the same period. In other words, more EU immigration has meant lower taxes for Britons.
In particular, immigrants from the Eastern European states that have joined the EU since 2004, like Poland, have made a significant contribution to the UK’s finances. These immigrants are more likely to be in work than Britons themselves. The last Labour government made many mistakes, but it should be applauded for its courage on immigration from Eastern Europe.
The report is not all positive for fans of immigration. While EU immigrants have been positive for the UK’s fiscal position, non-EU immigrants have been extremely expensive, at a cost of £118bn over the 16-year period studied. This is in large part because the report includes the costs of providing services to these immigrants’ children, who are legally British, but not the economic benefits of those children in later life. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored.
On the other hand, immigrants from outside the EU who arrived after 2001 have been net contributors to the state. The lesson for non-EU immigration policy may still be that, from a fiscal point of view, skilled immigration can reduce the burden on the public purse.
But immigration is not all about fiscal contributions. Immigrants allow for more specialisation and a deeper division of labour, increasing the productivity of native Britons and hence their wages. Immigrants are about twice as entrepreneurial as native Britons, with huge potential benefits for everyone – consider the jobs and innovation created by Sergey Brin, Google’s Russian-born co-founder.
This evidence should overturn much of the current debate about the EU. Polls show that, overwhelmingly, people who oppose immigration do so for economic reasons. According to Ipsos Mori, concern about benefits being drained is one of people’s biggest worries (cited by 31 per cent), just after fears of jobs being stolen – which virtually all economists agree is a myth.
These are the people who are voting for Ukip and whose support every other party wants to win. Politicians tell them what they want to hear, not what is true, and as a result the debate has become poisonous. Facts, it seems, have no place in discussion about immigration in modern Britain.
As we celebrate the Berlin Wall coming down, we should remember how good the opening up of Eastern Europe has been for all of us. We would be crazy to put a wall up again.