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Migration and free movement

By prioritising a target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, the Government are letting immigration policy dictate economic policy. The Government’s White Paper provided zero detail on how this goal would be reached, but at Open Britain, we are clear: this is the wrong path for the country that will deprive vital sectors of our economy of the skills they need. 

Following June 23rd, there must be a recognition that public attitudes to free movement of people and migration more widely were important drivers of the vote to Leave.

Public concern is, however, complicated. For example, it is striking that areas with large immigrant populations tended to vote Remain, while areas with few immigrants tended to vote Leave. It is true that areas that had seen a rapid change over the last decade voted to Leave, but these were few and far between, relative to the overall population.

The vast majority seek a balanced debate which recognises the benefits, as well as the challenges of immigration. This is now essential. For too long, mainstream politics has not engaged adequately with the immigration debate. That was true in the referendum campaign but is also true of all major political parties over the last decade or more, with considerable negative consequences: untruths and myths about immigration have been allowed to prosper; attacks on immigration have gone unchallenged; and the balanced debate the majority seek has never materialised, so many have felt their legitimate concerns were being dismissed. This must now change.

Open Britain’s starting point has three components.

First, we need an open an honest debate on immigration that makes a positive case and looks at immigration as a whole, in particular looking at the invaluable contribution high and low skilled migrants make to vital sectors.

Second, there are immediate and important steps the UK Government should take: guaranteeing the rights of existing EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU; committing to fully financing a Migration Impact Fund here at home to tackle any pressures on public services that arise from local influxes of immigration; and banning recruitment agencies from advertising solely overseas. 

Third, the UK should seek to ‘mend not end’ the system of free movement, calling for an EU-wide examination of free movement and looking at a range of reform options to mitigate negative economic outcomes if they arise. 

A wider debate

At Open Britain, we want to make a positive argument about the benefits of EU migration. It is incredibly important to challenge and confront a toxic minority who see the vote to leave the EU as an opportunity for xenophobia and calls to ‘send them back’. We must unequivocally condemn hate crimes and must do all we can to expose and report them. We were proud to call out the folly of the Government’s ‘name and shame’ policy and were glad to see that our letter-writing campaign to the Prime Minister contributed to a reverse of a deeply flawed policy.

The overwhelming majority of EU migrants work, bring innovation and energy to our economy, help fuel growth and make a net fiscal contribution, which allows us to invest in the public services and infrastructure we need. They are vital to specific sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, hospitality and the auto industry, and help make our public realm stronger, for example the 250,000 EU nationals working in our public services.

Vitally, free movement must be put in a wider context and not be allowed to become a catch-all term for concerns about immigration. Any new reform package must therefore focus in equal measure on EU and non-EU migration, which represents over 50% of net migration. This would make our approach more meaningful in meeting people’s concerns about the pace of change but also to EU Member States, which must see any proposals as part of a genuinely comprehensive response to public concerns.

Areas to explore covering overall migration would include more action to tackle illegal immigration; strengthening cohesion and integration; supporting minimum wage enforcement; and investing in UK border forces. The failure to prevent unlawful entry into our country and to remove illegal immigrants has rightly angered many people.

Working closely with the EU must of course be an important part of our approach, including retaining existing beneficial arrangements such as the Calais and Dublin agreements; ensuring continued co-operation over securing and policing the EU’s borders, where the UK has a clear national interest; working to tackle trafficking; and, more widely, working with the EU to tackle the drivers of large-scale migration shifts, such as conflict or climate change.

Immediate steps

There are immediate and important steps the UK Government should take.

-        Guaranteeing the rights of existing EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU is an essential point of principle which can unite those who voted Leave and Remain as well as UK and EU Governments. The Government should make a unilateral statement in order to generate goodwill that will be required in negotiations and lay the ground for a reciprocal agreement at the very start of the Article 50 process. Ending uncertainty is essential for individuals and their families as well as businesses across Europe and it is deeply disappointing that the Government rejected amendments to the Article 50 legislation that would have guaranteed the rights of EU nationals living and working in the UK and removed that uncertainty once and for all.

-        The UK Government should commit to introducing a new Migration Impact Fund which would alleviate pressures on public services and local communities – notably in healthcare, housing and education – which can be tied to local levels of immigration. This idea has been proposed in the past but the time has come for adequate funding, and could draw on remaining EU funding streams.

-        To ensure there is greater fairness in the system we must enforce, and examine legislating for, the principle that recruitment agencies and companies are barred from advertising for posts solely overseas. Just as we must more powerfully enforce the minimum wage, we must also now prevent this abuse of the system which is detrimental to communities here in the UK. 

Mending not ending free movement

In exploring how free movement would apply to the UK, our principles should be to protect the economy and sectors which rely on EU labour; protect our public services which benefit from EU workers; tackle abuses wherever they exist; and protect opportunities for young people to study, work and travel freely across Europe. Our system should be based on need not numbers.

There are a range of options the UK should initially explore, but, while the UK will be seeking to modify how free movement relates to the UK specifically, it will be essential to argue that this debate must now apply in an EU-wide context. We believe there is growing appetite for this debate amongst European partners. An isolated tailored UK deal on free movement could act as a spur to populist European undercurrents, while concerns over immigration have to be met. There is scope, therefore, to argue for greater national discretion in the application of the principle of free movement.

One option is to examine tying the free movement of labour to offers of employment. This appears to be in line with the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Article 46(d) of which explicitly states its intention to balance supply and demand within the labour market: ‘by setting up appropriate machinery to bring offers of employment into touch with applications for employment and to facilitate the achievement of a balance between supply and demand in the employment market in such a way as to avoid serious threats to the standard of living and level of employment in the various regions and industries.’

Such an approach could ensure that the exchange of talent, skills and innovation continued to benefit the UK economy while simultaneously being true to the founding principles of the EU.

To strengthen fairness in the system further we should also look more widely at how free movement could be better managed. There are precedents and developments which encourage the idea that reform could be achievable.

Within the terms of the EEA agreement countries can take unilateral ‘safeguard measures’ to address ‘economic, societal or environmental difficulties’ caused by being in the EEA. Liechtenstein has an agreed number of residence permits for EU citizens. Switzerland’s free movement deal allowed for an emergency brake for up to a year and they have negotiated a recruitment policy that prioritises local workers. David Cameron’s ‘special status’ renegotiation agreed the principle of restricting access to social security if there was economic stress arising from EU migration and it has been reported that the EU would have considered an emergency brake. Meanwhile an influential European think tank has proposed the UK have full access to the Single Market without the free movement of people.

These may not provide precise policy for the UK to replicate, but they do show that it may be possible to negotiate a tailored approach whereby free movement flows respond to specific economic conditions. 

We will continue to explore policy options in this area and to encourage debate. It is vital that those who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU now outline how they will deliver their promises.



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