Thursday, 9 June 2016

Brexit & the Immigration Debate

As we approach the climax of the Referendum campaign, I guess no-one should be surprised that immigration has come to the fore of the debate. In truth, immigration from the EU has never been my main concern. For me, the EU and immigration were both primarily questions of democratic consent. 

The words in the picture above are by Roland Smith, fellow of the Adam Smith Institute, renowned Brexit blogger aka White Wednesday. He eloquently captured what I had thought for a long time but was unable to put into words quite so clearly. You can read his full blog post here.

Immigration has been a big concern for a large proportion of the population for a long time. Simply putting this down to "xenophobia" will not do. We need to gain a clear picture of what Britain thinks.

What Britain thinks about free movement

The immigration issue is often conflated with Freedom of Movement - most unhelpfully in my view. Freedom of movement is essentially visa-free travel, which the vast majority of Britons benefit from and is also vital to Britains tourist industry, which had over 36 million visitors in last 12 months. Freedom of Movement also includes the potential to work/settle/study abroad, which is obviously an exciting opportunity to many people.

Freedom of movement is often seen as one of the few positives of EU membership. In truth, this is not really an EU accomplishment. Britain had visa-free travel with free western european nations in the 1940's.   People traveled/lived/worked/studied abroad before Britain joined the EEC in 1973, and while numbers doing so has increased dramatically, that is at least in part due to the revolution in global communications and travel since that time.

A YouGov poll suggests Brits like Free Movement but have concerns over controlling immigration to this country.  Before we all conclude "typical Brits, want to have their cake and eat it too", it turns out most countries have some degree of dichotomy in this respect. I take the poll as a positive, in that Brits are able to separate the issue of immigration from Free Movement and appreciate the benefits of Free Movement.

What Britain thinks about immigration

The think-tank British Future have undertaken a thorough study of the UK public's attitude to immigration and produced what I think is an important and valuable report "How To Talk About Immigration". In summary, they find that the majority of the British public "hold pragmatic and nuanced views" :
  • 83% “To belong to our shared society, everyone must speak our language, obey our laws and pay their taxes – so that everyone who plays by the rules counts as equally British and should be able to reach their potential”. The concept of "being British" is open and based on creed (rule of law, free speech, common language and values), not race or where you were born.
  • 75% “the public should have a say in the decisions that are made about immigration.” This is the argument for democratic consent.
  • 70% “would rather the government delivered on a realistic target to limit the immigration it can control, rather than a higher target that it may not be able to meet.” Government needs to provide transparency and confidence that immigration is under control.
  • 65% “Immigration can help fill gaps in the workforce: migrants do the jobs that need doing but which we struggle to fill, like care work and seasonal fruit picking. But for this to work we need to make sure standards like the minimum wage are enforced so British workers aren’t undercut and migrant workers aren’t exploited”. Fairness remains a very strong sentiment for the British.
  • 61% see "both pressures and benefits" and believe "we should control ... and choose the immigration that’s in Britain’s best economic interests". This group is identified as the "Anxious Middle" and their anxieties splits into two distinct camps: half are worried primarily about economic impact; the other half are worried primarily about cultural impact and integration (with particular anxiety over the muslim community). 
  • Either side of the "Anxious Middle": 24% think immigration is bad for the economy and should be minimised; Just 7% think unlimited immigration is good.
This chimes with my own conversations with a range of people, both in the flesh and via social media. I've summarised thinking about immigration under 3 headings: control, fairness, security.


The following public statements made in recent years sum up much of the argument around "control" of EU immigration:
"On low-skill immigration we believe there was too much of it from the EU. There is one important thing about the EU. The founders of the EU had in mind free movement of workers, not free movement of job seekers. The problem we have at the moment is ... high-skilled people coming from other countries to do low-skilled jobs here."
"In Britain, the scale of migration by East European workers seeking jobs across the English Channel has been the biggest driver of anti-EU sentiment by far. And the current refugee chaos is pouring fuel on that fire ... Europe’s leaders have shown no interest in revisiting the rules on free movement of labor ... if Europe does not eventually agree to restore borders and impose controls on economic migration, the initiative will pass to populist forces on the far left and right."
"When unskilled immigration is too high, its scale and speed puts pressure on public services and benefits, infrastructure and community cohesion. In particular, the UK’s largely non-contributory working age welfare system ...  EEA migrants are a significant recipient of in-work benefits and this is putting pressure on the benefits system."
So who do you think made these statements. UKIP ? right-wing Tory politicians ? Anti-immigration think tanks ? Wrong. The sources were (i) the uber metropolitian liberal Chuka Umunna in Jan 2014; (ii) former Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls in Feb 2016; (iii) George Osborne's Treasury Analysis of economic impact of EU membership para 1.112.  It appears that there is more of a public and political consensus than is often thought.

A significant number of voices in the metropolitan media strongly advocate unlimited immigration (representing the 7% minority view), based on economic theory (more workers = more demand = expanding economy) and statistical analyses. The British public however are not convinced. There plenty of studies that suggest the gains in the long run are minimal. In 2008 the Lords Economic Affairs Committee said it found no evidence that net migration produced significant economic benefits. While short-term gains are made from re-balancing the workforce age profile, long term, gains are eliminated or even reversed if (i) GDP growth is not raised above long term trend and (ii) capacity to absorb high immigration is hampered by breaching infrastructure capacity. Both of these seem to apply to Britain - we appear to be creating a larger economy, not a richer one.

It should also be noted that controlling the flow of immigration is not just a British issue. Poorer Eastern Europe states and Mediterranean states subject to economic devastation courtesy of the € are also worried about emigration.  The outflow of many of their young and talented provides a looming demographic problem. Latvia and Estonia have swathes of ghost towns (newly built with EU funds) housing a dwindling population of mostly older citizens.


There is a strong body of opinion that the current immigration system is unfair. The UK Government is not allowed to discriminate between UK and EU citizens, so EU citizens have access to UK benefits (covering housing, employment, in-work benefits etc) and services (Health and education services) on the same basis as UK citizens.  Even if the sums involved are not huge, many people feel the principle is wrong and uniquely disadvantages the UK's system. As George Osborne's Treasury report states: 
"the UK’s largely non-contributory working age welfare system is intended to support people who move off out-of-work benefits and into work. Because of the distinctive features of the UK welfare system and the current EU rules, an EU national who has not previously contributed in the UK was able to take a low-paid job here and immediately claim benefits at the same rate as a UK national."
Unlimited EU immigration and EU non-discrimination rules also impact on higher education, training and employment opportunities of young British. Douglas Carswell describes in a blog post from 2013, how a residency test is used to avoid making student loans available to all EU students - but a British student in his constituency who had spent a short period abroad did not qualify for a loan and subsequently had to leave University. David Cameron's promised 3 million paid apprenticeships are being offered to Romanians. Melanie Phillips in the Times laments the impact on investment in youth training since mass immigration from the EU started: 
"Some claim that immigrants are vital for the NHS and businesses needing skilled workers. But last year 37,645 British nursing students were turned away from courses; and employers’ federations have refused to invest in training young British people, with employer spending on serious apprenticeship programmes having collapsed since the late 1990s."
Under the EURES scheme (partly funded by British taxpayers), all positions advertised in UK jobcentres have to be offered to workers across the EU. Funding to EU nationals is provided for attending interviews in the UK, relocation costs and even English lessons (see YfEJ job-seeker benefits). UK firms are paid a bonus (up to £1000) for hiring EU nationals (see YfEJ employer benefits).

By contrast, the current immigration system is distinctly unfair in the treatment of non-EU migrants. From the 6th April 2016 non-EU skilled workers (excluding some jobs, such as nurses) who have been resident for less than 10 years will need to earn at least £35,000 pa to settle permanently in the UK. From April 2017, Businesses will have to pay £1,000 pa for every non-EU skilled worker.


The phrase "securing our borders" is often heard.  It is a vague phrase, perhaps designed to play into peoples general fears without specifying particular policies.  It conjurs up a vision of erecting barriers, walls and beefing up security personnel, all of which has a negative / defensive tone. Actually, the physical measures we take at our borders are entirely within our power, hence irrelevant to the EU question. And for all Theresa May's tough talk, she has systematically reduced spending on these areas.

The Remain campaign thought they had a winning "security" case with the various European security and intelligence sharing arrangements such as Europol, Schengen Information System, Prum DNA database etc. Until it was pointed out that EFTA states and others also participate. Some Remain campaigners have now switched to arguing that inside the EU we have "influence"over the EU security agenda.  Which in practice amounts to Theresa May attending the Justice & Home Affairs council once every 3 months, where she is in any case excluded from much of the agenda due to UK opt-outs. Furthermore, outside the EU, UK security / intelligence capabilities would be free from the risk of being subsumed into a single "European Security Union".

"Securing our borders" is more about judicial power to decide who can remain in our country. Human Rights law is governed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) arbitrated by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), Asylum law is governed by the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, i.e. not EU institutions or treaties. But, Article 6 of the Lisbon treaty & Article 18 of the Lisbon Fundamental Rights Charter effectively binds member states on Human Rights & Asylum law. David Cameron's Sovereignty Bill and Theresa May's wish to address problematic Human rights rulings are empty promises while the UK remains in the EU.

The need for Reform

There is a lot of heat and noise generated over the immigration debate. But British public opinion on the issue is more nuanced and pragmatic than the media debate suggests.  Indeed, I've encountered many who are angry over immigration primarily because they cannot understand why a few simple reforms cannot be implemented, for example:
  • Access to benefits/training schemes. Remove obligation from host states to provide equivalent access to EU migrants for first 5 years (until they achieve permanent residency). This would be reciprocated and also apply to Brits in the EU. Answers the "fairness" question and avoids "benefit tourism".  If the UK had a shortage of labour, it could still offer benefits to attract migrants. If a poorer nation wanted to discourage emigration, it could offer incentives to their nationals to stay.
  • Freedom of movement: Retain visa-free travel and opportunities to work/live/study throughout the EU, but allow some national control over volume of  low-wage immigration, either via the benefits system (as described above) or by virtue of applying a brake when high volumes have negative social or economic impact.
  • Non-EU migrants: UK Government should drop unfair policies regarding settled non-EU migrants and relax overly strict visa rules which block skilled / talented migrants from beyond the EU. I personally endorse and support freedom of movement arrangements with Canada, Australia & New Zealand (see Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organisation).
  • Human Rights / Asylum Law: Only a tiny minority wants to scrap all human rights law and reject all asylum seekers. But a significant majority are unhappy at the abuse of these systems and would want a more balanced, common sense implementation of Human Rights and Asylum. 
Implementing a reformed immigration policy is a massive topic in itself. Particularly if we consider what could be achieved outside the EU, or in EFTA EEA as an interim position. Given the length of this current post, I will save that discussion for my next post,

What has become painfully clear is that the EU is incapable of offering any meaningful reforms. Fundamentally, the EU sees itself as a single state and insists that member states recognise all EU citizens as their own. The British public on the whole seem committed to the idea of British citizenship first and then fair and equal treatment for all non-UK citizens. The EU has judicial supremacy over Britain, so we cannot address the problems of Human Rights and Asylum Law.

If we want the British people to decide British immigration policy, we should not be committing to the EU's political union by voting to Remain. The only way to get democratic consent on the immigration debate is to Vote Leave.

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