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Reducing migration from Europe will end up costing the country big.
If you want to infuriate a Brexiter, tell them that last year’s vote was driven by anti-immigration sentiments and bigotry. No, they will retort, it was about sovereignty and British control over British laws!
Fair enough, but why does immigration remain so central to the discussions over Britain’s future relations with the European Union? And why are British policymakers willing to impose real economic costs on their own country just to reduce the number of those who come to the U.K. from other European countries?
A leaked Home Office paper, published by The Guardian last week, is a case in point. The document envisages phasing out the right of EU citizens to settle in the U.K. Low-skilled migrants will be able to secure residency for only two years. Those in high-skilled occupations will have access to three- and five-year permits. EU nationals in the U.K., including those permanently settled in, will also face additional restrictions on their ability to bring in family members.
Needless to say, if pursued by the British government, such an agenda will make the current negotiations with Brussels harder.
For EU member states, defending the rights of their nationals in the U.K. remains a priority. Intransigence on immigration issues makes it unlikely that the U.K. can secure a degree of market access comparable to its current membership in the EU’s single market.
The reason why British politicians appear willing to make such sacrifices has to do with how important reducing immigration is for Brexiters. A vast majority of those who were concerned about immigration (73 percent according to a British Social Attitudes poll) voted to leave the EU in last year’s referendum.
The strong preoccupation of its public with immigration makes the U.K. an outlier in Europe. An index that combines both preference for reduced immigration and the salience of the issue placed the U.K. ahead of any other EU country, at three times the European average. British Social Attitudes surveys show consistently overwhelming majorities supporting reduced immigration (56 percent “by a lot,” 21 percent “by a little” in 2013).
Headlines in the tabloid press are not the only drivers of such attitudes. After the 2004 EU enlargement, the U.K. decided not to apply transitional restrictions on free movement of workers. That opened the U.K. up to large inflows of workers from Central and Eastern Europe, most prominently from Poland. Their influx was a net gain for the British economy – including for low-earners. However, it also put real pressures on local housing markets, since the U.K.’s zoning laws are by far the strictest among developed countries.
Unfairly, immigration has also been associated with welfare tourism. The actual evidence for it is scarce, but it is true that the National Health Service in particular functions as a free-for-all, providing unrestricted access to care to essentially anyone who shows up. That is in sharp contrast to the contributory systems that exist on the other side of the English Channel. The U.K. also never enforced the rules that are upheld routinely in other EU countries, which require that EU nationals are employed or have sufficient funds to sustain themselves in order to be eligible for residency.
What all of those issues have in common is that they are results of choices made by British governments, not by bureaucrats in Brussels. Trying to address them by making life harder for EU immigrants, current and prospective, throws the baby out with the bathwater. The NHS, for instance, would run into genuine difficulties without the plentiful supply of its Eastern European nurses. Large segments of the service industry, and even agriculture, also depend on migrant labor.
More fundamentally, the rejection of immigration is not a viable plan for the U.K.’s post-Brexit future. The ambitious plans for a wave of bilateral trade deals with countries around the world appear increasingly unrealistic: India, for example, insists on visa liberalization for its nationals interested in working in the U.K. Not even those who campaigned sincerely for Brexit on grounds of democratic sovereignty, not reduced migration, have a vision and a strategy.
Worse yet, the U.K.’s fixation on migration from other European countries is crowding out practically all other aspects of public policy, both foreign and domestic. As a result, fewer EU migrant workers seems now the only tangible outcome that Brexit will produce, while leaving the U.K. poorer and less influential in Europe and in the world.
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Towards an Imperfect Union: A Conservative Case for the EU
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