After reports that EU migrants are taking advantage of the UK welfare system, there is now some discussion of the other side of the story – whether Britons who have settled on the continent are an equivalent burden on their hosts.

Last week the BBC’s chief political correspondent tweeted:

In response to those asking for his source, Norman Smith explained that the numbers, while originating with the European Commission, don’t appear in a specific report. 

We contacted the European Commission to request a breakdown of the calculation. First of all, the Commission is clear that there are no authoritative statistics in this area. However, it claims that it’s possible to arrive at a rough estimate of the numbers. Here’s how:

According to a recent report (produced by the Commission), there are some 600,000 EU migrants in the UK who are “non-active” in the labour market. This is a group that includes not just the unemployed but students, pensioners, and those taking a break from work while they bring up children. In fact, only 28% of the total (some 168,000 people) is made up of jobseekers, less than the proportion accounted for by pensioners (30%).

The Commission has argued that it is “highly likely” that there’s a greater number of non-active UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU. It notes that, according to government estimates, there are 800,000 UK nationals living all or part of the year in Spain. While some of them are economically active, the same Commission report suggests there are some 125,000 non-active UK nationals resident in Spain

Not all of those who are “non active” will be claiming benefits, as the European Commission reportedly suggested. While we know that 106,000 ex-pats are claiming a pension from the UK government, there are others who won’t be receiving assistance from either the UK or Spanish state. While we can compare the non-active migrant populations in Spain and the UK, it’s more difficult to identify how many of them are claiming benefits. 

On the basis of this Commission report, there are fewer non-active UK nationals in Spain (125,000) than there are non-active EU migrants resident here (600,000). It’s worth noting that 125,000 is considered to be something of a conservative figure. In 2006, the Institute for Public Policy Research put the number of UK expats at 990,000, while other media estimates have suggested that in Spain there are 300,000 UK pensioners alone.

There doesn’t appear to be clear evidence for the claim that British emigrés in Spain claim more in benefits than EU migrants in the UK. The European Commission’s limited data suggests the opposite is the case. However, this data isn’t comprehensive and – at this stage – there’s too much we don’t know.


Flickr image courtesy of YanniKouts 

UPDATE 23 Oct: This article was updated to express more clearly that the claim was reported by Norman Smith but originated with the European Commission.