Southern Europeans Flock to U.K. as Migrant Theme Fuels `Brexit'

  • Italy leads euro-area requests for national insurance numbers
  • Concerns grow about increased welfare spending for the U.K.

‘Brexit’ advocates who say Britain’s borders are too porous may find further evidence for their claims in the fallout from southern Europe’s economic crisis.

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Since 2009, there has been a surge in the number of Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards and Greeks registering for U.K. national insurance numbers, which are needed to work and claim benefits such as income support. That’s largely due to the record-long and deep recessions across the region, which caused soaring unemployment and prompted many to search for work abroad.

That shift in people may mean higher welfare spending in the long term in Britain, and less in their home countries.

Italians led the euro-area pack with 58,653 new requests for U.K. national insurance numbers last year, according to data from Britain’s Department for Work and Pensions. That’s more than seven times the 2002 total and three times the level in 2008, before the economic downturn.

U.K. Culture Secretary John Whittingdale asked Prime Minister David Cameron to release figures showing the full scale of European Union migration to the U.K., according to an interview in the Daily Telegraph published this month. Whittingdale, who backs a U.K. exit from the bloc, pointed out that while official data show 257,000 EU migrants came to Britain last year, 630,000 EU citizens registered for national insurance.

Cameron is campaigning for the U.K. to stay in the EU in a June referendum, arguing that the country is “stronger, safer and better off.” The decision to hold the referendum followed an agreement won by Cameron that changes the way Britain interacts with the bloc, including some restrictions on benefits.

At the heart of the deal is a seven-year “emergency-brake” period during which the U.K. can impose welfare curbs on other EU citizens arriving to work in Britain. Opponents of the deal say it does little to change the U.K.’s fundamental relationship with the bloc.

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