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Given the recent political history of immigration in Britain, is it surprising that the issue now tops the political agenda and that public trust in politicians on this issue is so low? Throughout the 2000s, with looser policies on non-EU migration and EU enlargement to eastern Europe taking effect, net immigration to the UK increased from the tens of thousands to well over 200,000 a year. According to Ipsos-Mori’s issues tracker, just 10% of the British electorate considered immigration to be the most important issue facing the country in the late 1990s. By the mid-2000s, the share of people saying it was the most important issue steadily increased to 40%, and by May 2015 it reached 50%.
The relaxation of restrictions on non-EU migration in the late 1990s was not preceded by a lengthy public debate about the economic need (or otherwise) for greater levels of immigration. In contrast to countries such as Germany, where migration has been widely debated as part of a solution to its ageing demography, no such groundwork was laid by Tony Blair’s Labour government. The numbers of eastern European migrants that would arrive after the EU’s enlargement and the UK’s decision to open its labour market in 2004, while the vast majority of other western European states did not, were also wildly underestimated. Meanwhile, in response to public anxiety about immigration, David Cameron has stuck to a pledge to reduce immigration to the “tens of thousands” that few believe is possible to meet. The net immigration target has simply become a quarterly reminder of the government’s inability to deliver on its promises, which can only add fuel to the fire.
As with many other issues, public attitudes on the issue of immigration are more complicated and nuanced than we often imagine, as they encompass a myriad of social, cultural, and economic considerations. Surveys suggest that the British public has long felt immigration is too high. Since the second world war there have been overwhelming majorities in favour of reducing migration, regardless of the level of net migration into the country.
For example, 89% of people said in 1970 there were “too many immigrants” despite the fact that net migration was actually negative (-65,000). However, these aggregate numbers masked the emigration of large numbers of ‘native’ British citizens and the immigration of large numbers of post-war economic migrants from the new commonwealth. Therefore, to equate public attitudes on immigration simply with levels of net migration to the UK is plainly crude. Nevertheless, public concerns about immigration do appear to have become more intense as net immigration has increased over the last decade.
Of the roughly five million net immigrants to the UK between 1990 and 2014, over three-quarters came from outside Europe. However, the composition has changed and immigration from the EU now makes up nearly half of the UK’s net inflow. Nigel Farage’s UKIP has also successfully fused the two issues in the public’s political imagination. Like it or not, the issues of EU membership and immigration are now inextricably linked. Many commentators therefore cite immigration as potentially the decisive issue in the EU referendum.
Is the concern migration or welfare?
So is immigration the open goal for Leave campaigners that some imagine? It is important we remember that this referendum will not be decided by those people who are the most vociferous opponents of either immigration or the EU. It will be decided by the large swathe of voters who are typically sceptical of the EU and anxious about the effects of immigration but are equally unsure about what throwing the baby out with the bathwater will mean for the money in their pockets and the wider economy.
Those most in favour of EU membership and high levels of immigration seem to think that the public is not sufficiently well-versed in ‘the facts’ about immigration and that, if they were, attitudes would change. The focus on facts and figures not only overlooks the intangible cultural and social aspects of identity and the rights and responsibilities of national citizenship, but also the localised effects of immigration.
There is no denying that EU membership and the free movement of EU citizens means a certain ‘loss of control’. However, it is only right that we consider this in the wider context. The government is nominally ‘in control’ of non-EU migration but, despite more restrictive policies, non-EU net migration remains higher than EU migration at nearly 200,000 a year. The reality is that, irrespective of EU membership, there are factors that are either beyond the government’s control or are undesirable to change: the UK’s economic cycle versus those of our partners and competitors; the English language; the pull of family members and communities already here; and the needs of business and universities.
For better or worse, free movement is part of the bargain of EU membership. This does not mean it should to be immune to reform. It was clear from very early on in the EU renegotiation process that scrapping the principle altogether (i.e. Britain choosing exactly how many people could come in) was not an option that other EU countries would ever entertain. Therefore, those people and tabloid newspapers for whom this was a red line were never going to be satisfied.
This is why the government’s approach of seeking to better balance the continued right of EU citizens to enjoy free movement for work across Europe and the right of individual member states to regulate their own welfare systems was, in my view, the correct one. The ‘emergency brake’ on in-work benefits provided for in the UK-EU deal would mean that, for seven years, the UK will be able to treat its own citizens differently to nationals from other EU member states. This would establish a principle that EU workers should only get access to the UK’s universal welfare system after a period of four years and therefore after making a contribution to British society.
David Cameron has described this as part of ending a ‘something for nothing’ system, and the evidence suggests this is a principle that resonates strongly with the public. A recent social attitudes survey found that restricting the ability of EU migrants to claim welfare was the most popular change voters would like to see, with 68% agreeing with the policy and 17% disagreeing. Meanwhile, ending the automatic right of people from across the EU to work in Britain was actually far less popular, with 51% agreeing and 27% disagreeing, and ranking below a desire to change how the EU regulates businesses.
Voters will also need to assess the other side of the equation: what Brexit would mean not only for immigration but the wider UK-EU relationship. The existing precedents suggest that the UK’s ability to restrict immigration from the EU very much depends on the type of post-exit deal the UK would seek to negotiate. The Norwegian and Swiss experiences suggest that if the UK seeks to replicate its current access to the EU’s single market – or something close to it – free movement will likely be part of the deal, which is illustrated by the fact that these states currently accept far higher numbers of EU migrants per capita than Britain. If post-Brexit governments want to dramatically reduce numbers, this is likely to mean accepting less favourable access to EU markets than UK exporters currently enjoy. Switzerland is in the middle of trying to negotiate quotas and restrictions on EU migrants while retaining its other EU trade agreements, without much luck so far. A UK-EU negotiation might be different, but Leave campaigners will need to convince voters that it will be.
Sovereignty vs. globalisation
There is also a more fundamental economic and social fault line which has been exposed in the Brexit debate but that is unlikely to be settled by the EU referendum. There are different strands of Euroscepticism in Britain. One is driven by a sovereigntist impulse, which can manifest itself in distrust and fear of the effects of globalisation. Another sees Brexit as an opportunity to look beyond Europe to ‘join the world’. Nowhere is the tension between ‘sovereignty’ and ‘globalisation’ starker than on the question of immigration.
Outside of the EU, the UK could potentially adopt different immigration policies to alter the mix of imported skills and nationalities, or to better enforce border controls by implementing a new visa regime or new rules on intra-company transfers. However, fundamental economic trade-offs cannot be avoided. For example, if these policies were to excessively restrict the UK labour supply they could make some British businesses less competitive by raising wages, and some consumers worse off by increasing prices. If this happened at the same time as the UK opened up to free trade and new low-cost competition from emerging markets in India and China, as many in the ‘globalist’ Brexit camp advocate, the effect on competitiveness could be further amplified. Meanwhile, some of those advocating Brexit argue that a ‘fairer’ system would allow Britain to admit more non-EU migrants. Given that non-EU migration already runs at way over the net migration target, how does this square with public demand to reduce numbers?
The migration crisis engulfing the continent is the obvious wild card. The EU’s inability to find a solution could prompt further chaotic scenes on British television screens in the run up to the vote, and understandably undermine public confidence in the EU’s ability to deal with the major challenges that it faces. However, the issue of ‘border control’ is largely a red herring. The UK sits outside of the passport-free Schengen area and thus can apply controls at its border – indeed, elements of the proposed UK-EU package would further enable it to do so. The numbers of refugees and asylum seekers reaching Britain is remarkably low and, using its ‘best of both worlds’ mantra, the government can credibly argue that the ‘migration crisis’ has actually illustrated how insulated the UK is from the migration crisis, despite its EU membership.
Ultimately, the referendum campaign is likely to be fought over voters’ perceived balance of risk. There is no love for the EU or mass migration, but what is the alternative? EU free movement is an important part of the equation in a number of trade-offs that voters will need to evaluate. After Brexit, would the UK seek to remain inside the EU’s single market (a la Norway) to ensure continuity of EU market access and minimise economic disruption but accept this entails continued adherence to free movement? If more independence to set immigration policy (and what would it look like?) is indeed the priority, even at the cost of reduced access to the EU market, what are the potential economic consequences? Would the UK be any more insulated from the migration crisis outside the EU?