Lens Blog

Psychological insight on current affairs
Brexit immigration myth


posted on 11th February 2017

Britain’s negotiations with the EU around Brexit centre upon the extent to which the UK is prepared to accept freedom of movement of people in return for access to the single market. At times the UK Government has acted as if it can have both but the view from Europe is clear – there is a trade off to be negotiated.

Our analysis shows that while freedom of movement in the past has led to a relatively sizeable influx of people from the EU, ending this right going forward will have only a marginal impact on the net migration figure.

Specifically, when one starts to factor out from the EU net migration figures; students, those who are joining family members, as well as categories the Government has promised to protect, the potential reductions become vanishingly thin. In addition, one has to take into the account the impact of ending freedom of movement on the outflow from the UK of both EU and UK citizens.

Taken together these factors imply that the UK net migration figure would likely only come down by a maximum of 50,000 from a total of 335,000. Furthermore, it is clear that in negotiating future trade deals outside the EU, other countries will push the UK hard for concessions on migration. If the UK concedes even minor concessions here, and if changes which typically arise when immigration controls are strengthened come to fruition, the net migration figure may well not change at all.

However, there would be a potential rebalancing of the sources of migration between European versus non-EU migration as a result of ending EU freedom of movement. The reductions could be larger if the Government made changes to the student visa regime or rules around joining others. However, our analysis assumes that these factors stay constant.

The extent to which a reduction of 50,000 is worth a huge period of economic uncertainty, the collapse of the pound, reductions in inward investment, loss of UK citizen’s rights in the EU and the potential break-up of the UK should be evaluated.

UK political leaders have, when engaging the migration debate, often put short-term considerations ahead of anticipating how things will play out over time. Unfulfilled promises that net migration could be brought down to the tens of thousands provided oxygen and fuel for the rise of UKIP.
A similar danger exists in the current situation.

We suggest that the major political parties move to a consensus on the terms of the migration debate that is grounded in fact and reality. There is widespread agreement that the UK should be one of the most globally outreaching economies in the world. The other side of the coin of such an aspiration is necessarily a certain level of net migration.

We recognise that immigration has become an extremely charged issue in the country and offer a number of policy options that would curtail migration from the EU, rebalance the UK job market in favour of locals and mitigate the anxieties that people feel about immigration. We believe it is possible to have a balanced approach to achieving reductions in net migration, whilst preserving substantial access to the single market and building positive relationships with both the EU and our other global partners.

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