On May 1st 2004, migrants from the ‘Accession 8’ countries of eastern Europe won the right to work in Britain. Denied access to labour markets elsewhere in Europe, workers came to the UK, precipitating the largest single wave of migration the country has ever experienced.
The Brexit vote twelve years later suggests that Britain’s turn towards openness has been rejected. Even in 2004, the British public were more worried about immigration than almost every other country in Europe. Westminster’s reluctance to meaningfully engage in the issue allowed a vacuum to be filled with popular euroscepticism and nativism, and there was no meaningful integration strategy to help the country adjust to change.
But that does not mean that Britain’s recent immigration history has all been a mistake. Quite the opposite. For the British economy, EU migration has been a resounding success story.