As Theresa May prepares to set out her latest plan for Brexit in Florence on Friday, those on all sides of the debate will wait to see if there are answers to fundamental questions about Britain’s future outside of the EU. Principle among those is how the UK immigration system will work. How can we respond to leave voters’ concerns confidence in the system, whilst at the same time ensuring our economy isn’t badly damaged?
For those deeply concerned about Brexit, an important strategic objective is to challenge the basic premise of the Vote Leave campaign: that dealing with public’s concern about immigration means we have to leave the EU and Single Market.
In fact, the opposite is true. Last week the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change published our case for an alternative course of action not on offer from the main UK political parties. A paper I authored examined the evidence around EU migration and mapped out the most plausible policy options facing the UK in seeking to negotiate reform of free movement.
Our study found that we are more likely to be able to restore faith in the system by staying within Europe and reforming free movement, than by leaving. Here is how we could do it:
First, there are ways to exercise greater control over EU migration without needing to change the rules. It is not true that the current system of free movement is ‘unconditional’, as recently claimed in a leaked Home Office paper. In fact, there is already considerable scope under existing EU rules to limit free movement.
EU rules state that in order to be given a right to reside, EU migrants must be able to demonstrate proof that they are either working, actively seeking work, or self-sufficient, otherwise they can be proactively removed after three months.
But unlike other continental systems, the UK has chosen not to operate a worker registration system for EU nationals and thus has no way of tracking where they are or what they’re doing. This could be changed tomorrow, if the government were so minded.
Other reforms being discussed at the highest levels within Europe would help deal with the sense that those coming to the UK drive down wages and conditions. The UK could make common cause with President Macron in France, who is pushing for reform of the so-called ‘Posted Workers Directive’, so that companies seeking to bring in workers from abroad have to pay those workers at the same rate as local staff. It could also follow the advice of the TUC and implement domestic reforms of our labour market to prevent exploitation and undercutting.
Instead, the UK government has chosen to oppose reform of the Posted Workers Directive and made it clear that it has not interest in labour market reform.
Whilst the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved.
Second, achieving more substantive change to free movement rules is not as implausible as often portrayed. Specifically, allowing member states to enact safeguards to slow the pace of change in local communities is not unrealistic. Whilst the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved. And given that other countries, such as France, have expressed concern and called for reform, it is likely to evolve further.
The reforms to free movement negotiated by David Cameron in 2016 illustrate that the EU Commission can be realistic. Cameron’s agreement (which focused primarily on benefits) also provides an important legal and political precedent, with the Commission having agreed to introduce ‘safeguards’ to respond to ‘situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time’.
Similar precedents can be found within a number of other EU agreements, including the Acts of Accession of new Member States, the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). OUR report recommends that the UK seek a strengthened version of Cameron’s ‘emergency brake’, which could be activated in the event of ‘exceptional inflows’ from within the EU. We are not the first to argue this.
Of course some will say that it is unrealistic to expect the UK to be able to get more than Cameron achieved in 2016. But put yourself if in the shoes of the EU. If you believe in a project and want it to succeed, moral imperative is balanced with realism and it hardly needs pointing out that the political context has radically shifted since Cameron’s negotiation.
In contrast, a ‘hard Brexit’ will not deliver the ‘control of our borders’ that Brexiteers have promised. As our report makes clear, the hospitality, food, manufacturing and social care sectors heavily depend on EU workers. Given current employment rates, this means huge labour shortages.
These shortages cannot be wished away with vague assertions about “rejoining the world” by the ultra free market Brexiteers. This is about looking after our elderly and putting food on our tables. If the UK leaves in April 2019, it is likely that the government will continue to want most categories of EU migration to continue. Moreover, whatever controls are introduced post-Brexit are unlikely to be enforced at the border (doing so would cause havoc, given our continued commitment to visa-free travel). Instead we would be likely to see an upsurge in illegal migration from within the EU, with people arriving at the border as ‘visitors’ but then staying on to seek work. This is likely to worsen problems around integration, whereby migrants come and go in large numbers, without putting down roots.
We can do this a different way. The important issues that most drive public concern about EU migration - lack of control, undercutting, pace of change - can be dealt with either within current rules or by seeking reform within the EU.
The harsh truth is that Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.
Some will argue that the entire line of argument contained here is dangerous, since it risks playing into an anti-immigrant narrative, rather than emphasising migration’s benefits. This is an argument for the ivory tower, not the real world.
There is a world of difference between pandering to prejudice and acknowledging that whilst EU migration has brought economic benefits to the UK, it has also created pressures, for example, relating to population churn within local communities.
The best way to secure public consent for free movement, in particular, and immigration in general, is to be clear about where those pressures manifest and find ways of dealing with them, consistent with keeping the UK within the EU.
This is neither an attempt at triangulation, nor impractical idealism. It’s about making sure we understand the consequences of one of the biggest decisions this country has ever taken, and considering a different course