On immigration, the biggest decisions are yet to come
In the end, it was immigration, stupid. The result of the EU referendum – and the campaign that led to it – clearly exposes the depth of public dissatisfaction with our country’s policy on immigration. It was a vote against the status quo; a vote for change. But what sort of change, and in which direction?
As the government takes in the results of the referendum, the policy priorities are numerous – not least the stabilisation of the UK economy. But on immigration, the choices confronting the government are of particular political significance.
There are three core decisions for government. The first – and most immediate – concerns the rights of EU migrants currently living in the UK. This – along with the rights of UK citizens in other EU countries – will become a key point of debate in the initial ‘divorce proceedings’ with the EU that will likely kick in now the public has voted for Brexit. During the campaign, Vote Leave promised that these rights will be protected.
This is the right call: it would be unfair, mean-spirited and logistically nightmarish to jeopardise these rights. And of course any unfair treatment of EU migrants in the UK would likely lead to reciprocal action with respect to UK expats elsewhere in the EU. There are 3 million EU migrants in the UK and at least 1.2 million UK emigrants in other member states – coming to a fair, sensible arrangement would benefit both sides.
At the same time, the Leave campaign’s solution to this challenge – granting indefinite leave to remain to all EU migrants in the UK – appears simplistic. How would these migrants be administratively identified? What about EU citizens who have only been in the UK for a matter of weeks? Or migrants who only come to the UK for temporary work? What might this mean for family members of EU migrants already here? And wouldn’t such a move precipitate a rush of migration from other parts of the EU trying to enter before the date of Brexit? All these issues need serious thought.
Second, there is the question of the principle of free movement itself. A new trading relationship with the EU may take some time to negotiate. But, as with other non-EU countries such as Switzerland, free movement will probably be a key point of contention.
It is likely that the 27 remaining EU member states will play hardball: for full access to the single market, they will require the UK to retain the free movement of people. From an economic perspective, there are benefits to keeping free movement in place: a ready supply of young highly qualified, flexible workers plugging skills shortages and paying taxes. But it is hard to believe that a deal including free movement will be politically acceptable in the UK. Still, there may be scope for a compromise: for instance, the UK could offer privileged access to the UK’s labour market for EU migrants through a more generous points-based system than other migrants outside the EU face, in return for better single market access. Whether the EU itself would be interested in such a deal is unclear. But the government needs to decide its negotiating position – and its red lines – early on.
Third, and more fundamentally, comes the question of what new system should be put in place for prospective migrants, after a deal is done with the EU. Here there is a clear divergence of opinion among Leave campaigners. Many – such as leading campaigner Boris Johnson and Ukip migration spokesman Steven Woolfe – have proposed a liberal, outward-looking system, more generous to non-EU skilled workers, family migrants and students, while respectful of the economic impacts of restricted free movement. Others have offered a very different vision. It is in the country’s economic, social and geopolitical interests that an open – albeit carefully managed – approach wins out. Now Britain has voted to leave the EU and is likely to have more flexibility in managing flows from the EU, there is renewed scope for addressing public concerns – about control over the system, about pressures on services, about wage compression for low-paid workers – without sacrificing an open, fair policy for migrants. Indeed, our research ahead of the referendum suggests that a managed migration policy that welcomes those who contribute but that deals with pressures where they arise is exactly the system the public want.
But the devil is in the detail, and many questions still arise. Should the government retain its net migration target (something at IPPR we have argued against)? Should rules for non-EU migrants be loosened, as was suggested in the referendum campaign? Does there need to be a new route for low-skilled migration to the UK, to compensate employers in sectors such as food processing, construction and agriculture, who have been reliant on EU migrant labour? Should – as was suggested by both sides in the referendum campaign – a new fund be set up to ease pressures on communities experiencing high levels of migration? These questions will take longer to resolve.
It is clear that the referendum result signals public dissatisfaction with our current immigration policy. So change is needed. But this change does not have to result simply in a restrictive, reactionary and intolerant policy. An outward-looking vision is achievable; it has after all been promoted by most of the leading Leave campaigners themselves. A big decision has been made this week – but on immigration, the biggest decisions are yet to come.