When the European Union expanded in 2004, it opened up a wave of migration from Eastern Europe to more affluent countries of Western Europe, particularly Britain. New figures show that legal immigration from Eastern Europe to Britain has far exceeded government expectations. A fierce debate is under way in Britain on the issue of immigration.
It is a busy night at Albannach, an upscale bar and restaurant just off London's bustling Trafalgar Square, and Ewelina Szymanska is constantly moving, as she takes orders for complex cocktails from a thirsty clientele.
Szymanska is one of the more than 400,000 mostly young workers who have moved from Eastern Europe to Britain since the European Union expansion two years ago. She is proudly Polish, but is grateful that she can work in Britain.
"I feel like I'm just European," she said. "I was growing up like this. I think this is good, but I feel like a guest. It's not my country. It's not my home. My home will always be in Poland, because I was born there."
When the eight states joined the E.U. ranks in 2004, Britain was one of only three EU countries to adopt a fully open door policy to workers from the new member states. But recently released figures show that immigration far exceeded government estimates of perhaps 5,000 to 13,000 per year. Roughly 62 percent of the new arrivals are, like Ewelina Szymanska, from Poland.
Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, says that has renewed a heated debate about immigration in Britain, especially as two more states, Bulgaria and Romania, are poised to join the EU next year.
"What's given it added impetus is that, since the new European countries, like Poland, Slovakia, and the others, joined the European Union, Britain gave those people access to its jobs market," he explained. "And many more have come to Britain than people thought would be the case. So, there's been a heated debate about whether it's been a good thing."
Proponents of unlimited immigration, which include the heads of some of Britain's biggest firms, like the supermarket chain Sainsbury's, argue that the new arrivals do jobs that Britons will not do, that they work hard, and are not a drain on the health care or education systems.
It's a view shared by Jim Wrigley, manager of the Albannach. Not only are many of his service employees from Eastern Europe, he says, but the man he entrusts with the care of thousands of dollars worth of expensive food and liquor is one of the new Polish immigrants, who worked his way up through the ranks.
"[It's a] sweeping generalization, but these are people who are prepared to work hard," he said. "The money is good, for them, when they first come over. And they recognize the fact that if they work hard, they can increase their money. Their language skills, which, if someone's just come over, they have to start learning English pretty quickly, but they do, they pick it up pretty quickly. And there's a loyalty that isn't necessarily evident in, I assume, a lot of the Western world, but definitely in British workers."
However, in arguments that echo those over illegal immigration in the United States, opponents say the new immigrants take jobs away from Britons and depress wages because they will work for less. Sir Andrew Green, a former ambassador who heads a group called Migration Watch, tells VOA there should be a moratorium on new immigration.
"Our view is that there has to be a pause, that the flow of immigration from the first eight has been so much greater than foreseen, has had such a substantial impact on the labor market in particular sectors, that we really can't take the risk of once again being the main destination of the next wave of immigration," he said.
He also vehemently denies that being against new immigration is racist, as immigration proponents charge.
Ewelina Szymanska, who will be moving on to school in Britain to study interior design, says she understands why some English people are upset about the influx of newcomers.
"But, on the other hand, when I look at this situation from an English point of view, I see that, 'oh my God, so many strangers are coming over, and our country is becoming, like, it's not England anymore. It's so many Polish people, so many people from Australia, so many people from Brazil, and from other European countries.' And it's not the same England anymore," she noted. "But there is a question. Is it worse? Or is it better?"
Nick Pearce of the Institute for Public Policy Research says there is no question that Britain has benefited from the immigration. But he adds that it remains a very sensitive issue for politicians in the face of calls to curb immigration from the two new EU member states, when they join next year.
"I think, all the signs coming out of the government are that it's very, very nervous about extending the same rights to Romanians and Bulgarians to work in Britain that have previously been extended to Poles and others," he added. "I think it looks as if that's on a knife's edge, that decision. If they do allow them to come and work here, I suspect, it would be combined with tightening up any other immigration from outside the European Union."
One published report says officials are considering requiring a work permit for Bulgarians and Romanians, under which they would have to prove that they can fill specific job shortages.