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

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW1.1.04 (Tower One)
Meghan Luhman, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
In January 2014, temporary movement controls on migrants from new E.U. member states Bulgaria and Romania expired, allowing Bulgarian and Romanian nationals to take advantage of one of the fundamental rights of European citizenship: freedom of movement and residence throughout the E.U. In the U.K. in the year leading up to the expiration of controls, a fierce political debate emerged in the press and in the U.K. government, partially stoked by repeated suggestions by members of the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) that Bulgarians and Romanians were likely to “flood” the U.K. as “benefits tourists” and “welfare cheats.” Prime Minister David Cameron not only heeded these concerns, but acted to restrict the benefits available to E.U. migrants, arguing that in the absence of changes to E.U. free movement, the U.K. might exit the E.U. In the space of ten years, Cameron’s Conservative Party had gone from pro-enlargement, arguing the E.U.’s expansion to Eastern and Central Europe would serve Britain’s national interests, to threatening to exit the E.U. over Bulgarian and Romanian migrants, even in spite of a lack of evidence that significant numbers of new migrants from those countries would arrive in the U.K., and in spite of any concrete evidence that migrants commit welfare fraud on a widespread scale. How can this shift in policy be explained?

Drawing on recent political science and policy scholarship inspired by pragmatist thinkers on “political creativity” (Galvan, Berk, and Hattam 2013) and policy narratives (Boswell et. al. 2011), I argue that “benefits tourism” is a policy narrative which is part of a larger assemblage of ideas and practices which intersects with both domestic and international politics and events. I trace the emergence, resonance, and resurgence of benefits tourism as a narrative in the U.K. and the impact this narrative could have on the governance of free movement in the E.U. The governance of intra-E.U. mobility at the supranational level requires member states to accept limits on their ability to control the regulation of E.U. nationals in the workforce (Paul 2013). Yet the recent enlargements of the E.U. have led the U.K. government to question the desirability of free movement. This paper traces the processes through which benefits tourism is constructed as a policy problem and specifically linked to E.U. migration. Intra- and inter-party politics, an environment of Euroskepticism, a broad frame of “abuse of the system,” and the linkages made by media and politicians connecting migrants to criminality all contributed to the perception of E.U. migrants, particularly Romanians and Bulgarians, as “benefits tourists.” Additionally, uncertainty about migration flows and the prevalence of “abuse of the system” have contributed to the government’s questioning of the benefits of free movement. Ultimately, this paper emphasizes the role of national-level political actors and events in shaping and interpreting beliefs about policy problems, examining when and why the governance of free movement and national policy narratives conflict.