It is widely accepted that last year’s Referendum vote was at least partly driven by public anxiety about immigration. That anxiety is real and must be dealt with. But delivering a ‘hard Brexit’ is not the sole, or even the best way to do so. This paper examines the evidence around EU migration and takes an objective look at the policy options facing the UK in seeking to negotiate reform of free movement with the EU27.
Our analysis reveals that the majority of EU nationals who come to the UK arrive with a job offer; that most work in jobs that our economy needs - indeed certain sectors, such as hotels, restaurants and manufacturing, are heavily dependent on such migration; that EU migration has resulted in some downward pressure on wages, but that the proportion of EU migrants in genuinely low skilled jobs is lower than often assumed; and that whilst the public are anxious about the pace of change, they are more positive about the impact of migration, and more pragmatic about the trade-offs involved in negotiating free movement reform, than often assumed.
Our report assesses the most plausible policy options facing the UK in seeking to negotiate free movement reform. We recommend that the government seek to negotiate a strengthened ‘emergency brake’ to implement temporary controls on free movement in particular sectors during periods of high EU inflows. This would enable the UK to exercise greater control over immigration, whilst leaving open the option of the UK remaining within the EU, or failing that, as members of the Single Market. Precedents for provisions of this nature can be found in at least four previous EU agreements. We also argue that reforming free movement is not enough: dealing with anxiety about immigration must involve a wider set of changes, covering labour market reform, social integration, enforcement against illegal migration and the strengthening of democratic accountability. Finally, should Brexit happen, the least damaging outcome for Britain would be to establish a preferential work permit system, whereby free movement continues for certain categories of people, for instance, highly skilled professionals and students, but is restricted for others, for example, low skilled workers.
Commenting on the report, Harvey Redgrave, a senior policy fellow at the Institute for Global Change, said:
"It is clear that free movement - in its current form - needs to be reformed, given last year's Referendum vote"
“However, excessive restrictions on EU migration, as proposed by the recently leaked Home Office paper, would be self-defeating, as our analysis of the role of EU nationals in the labour market shows, and also sacrifice the possibility of the UK staying within the Single Market.
“And evidence on attitudes to immigration and Brexit shows that a majority of the public expect compromise from the UK-EU discussions.
“The government need to take a more pragmatic, inclusive and nuanced approach to these negotiations, which recognises the trade-offs involved between migration control and membership of the Single Market, and which recognises the new political reality, post-election, of their reduced mandate."