The 170,000 Romanians and 65,000 Bulgarians now working in Britain are pondering the implications if Britain votes to leave the EU in June.
“I am leaving Bulgaria in two weeks as I just got a new job in the UK. But what will happen to me if Britain decide to leave the EU?," a young Bulgarian asked the British ambassador to Bulgaria, Emma Hopkins, at a debate on the future of the UK in the EU in Sofia on Monday.
His question reflects the uncertainty facing numerous Bulgarian and Romanian emigrants, who gained the full rights to work in the UK just two years ago, ahead of the UK’s June 2016 referendum on EU membership.
According to Hopkins, if British voters choose the "Brexit" option, the conditions for legal foreign workers in the UK will have to be renegotiated in terms of their rights to pensions and social benefits. “This will be a part of the most difficult conversation," she said.
With migration the defining issue in the debate in Britain over the EU referendum, speculation about how a British exit might affect migration to and from the UK is growing.
Research by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford suggests that if an exit leads to significant cuts in EU migration, the economic impact on the UK would probably be small in the medium to long term.
Countries such as Romania and Bulgaria have more to lose if the UK decides to leave the EU, however.
Most affected will be the 170,000 Romanians and 65,000 Bulgarians working in the UK. New barriers on access to benefits could prompt many to leave the country.
“For me the UK is not an end in itself – if things get worse, my partner and I are ready to move to another destination," 33-year-old Irina, a Bulgarian PHD student, living in Leicester, says.
Social benefits are not the main drive luring Eastern Europeans to the UK, but jobs and higher wages, however.
Latest data of UK’s Office for National Statistics show that of all Romanians and Bulgarians who came to the UK in the year ending September 2015, 45,000, 87 per cent of them, came for work-related reasons. Around two-thirds arrived with a definite job to go to.
If the UK restricts the rights of Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK, this would cause a major blow to the economies of the two Balkan countries.
“This could create a major disruption in the flow of money as Romanian expats send home more than 500 million euro a year, or 0.3 per cent of GDP,” reads a report published on February 29 by Austrian bank Erste.
Bulgaria faces even greater risk, as in recent years emigrants have become the country’s biggest foreign investor. In 2013, they poured 1.7 billion euro into the Bulgarian economy, compared to 1.2 billion euro in foreign direct investment, FDI, data from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences have shown.
In terms of trade, a downturn in the economy of UK from a Brexit could also dent Romanian exports, especially in machines and transport equipment, which comprise 46 per cent of total exports to the country.
The UK is the fifth-largest destination for Romanian exports, accounting for slightly more than 4 per cent of overall exports, evaluated at some 2.3 billion euro per year.
Another effect of a possible Brexit will be on Romanian and Bulgarian students planning to study in the UK, as they would have to pay full tuition fees and would have no access to student loans.
Right now, 6,750 Romanians are studying in the UK, according to official data. Bulgarians who have chosen to continue their higher education in Britain number 6,186, according to the national statistics for 2015.
The UK is the main destination for students wanting to study abroad, as there they can benefit from substantial fellowships or from access to student loans.
According to the latest polls, the Brexit camp is in the lead. About 49 per cent of voters say they want to quit the EU with 47 per cent wanting to stay.
With 100 days to go before polling day, there is everything to play for, bowever, and the government of David Cameron is throwing its full weight behind the campaign to stay in.