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UK debating the future of migration and EU membership

17 March 20160 comments

Migration is the key issue in the referendum the UK will hold in late June this year to determine whether it remains part of the EU or not.

The so-called ‘Brexit’ supporters argue the current arrangements damage the UK economy by forcing the nation to favour unskilled European workers over highly skilled immigrants from elsewhere.

The issue of migration will be a key issue in the UK referendum this June

The issue of migration will be a key issue in the UK referendum this June

The latest figures show that net migration into the UK was 323,000 in the year to last September, more than three times higher than the government’s target.

EU citizens made up 172,000 of that number, including 45,000 Bulgarians and Romanians.

While the UK imposes stringent visa requirements on economic migrants from outside Europe, the EU’s freedom of movement principle means that no such controls can be applied to citizens from other EU states entering the UK for work.

Pro Brexit politicians say this discriminates against people who, in a world of increasing labour mobility, Britain might want to attract.

They say that Norway and Switzerland have shown how it is possible to be outside the EU but still trade with Europe. However, both these countries accept EU freedom of movement principles on the same terms as existing member states, and both have more EU immigrants per head living and working within their borders than does the UK.

And to complicate matters, the UK has more than a million of its own citizens living in other European countries, who could be affected by new immigration arrangements.

Proponents of Brexit argue that with sovereignty restored the UK will be able to make its own choices about what deals it signs up to. The current migration arrangements are unpopular, with opinion polls consistently showing that roughly 75 per cent of the British public favour reducing migration levels.

Some commentators have argued that the UK could negotiate a tougher line against unskilled EU migrants in return for a more limited Free Trade Agreement with the EU.

But the problem for these business-oriented interests is that while the public is keen to reduce immigration from Europe, they do not have any enthusiasm for opening the doors to the rest of the world either.

One poll in 2013 showed that while 70 per cent of people thought immigration rules from Europe are not strict enough, 73 per cent said the same of the rules that apply to immigrants from outside the EU.

And the independent think tank ‘MigrationWatch’ has estimated that new controls on unskilled EU immigrants could cut immigration to the UK by 100,000 a year – a figure still more than double the government’s target.

Any new migration policy is likely, the group says, to end up being more restrictive towards all groups.

Much of what the UK public digests through the media about the immigration debate is wrapped up in images of the Calais asylum seeker camps on the French side of the channel tunnel.

What will happen to those if Britain exits the EU is a moot point. Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested a Brexit could see the camps transferred to Dover if the French renege on arrangements stopping refugees crossing the channel.

But under current UK laws as soon as the migrants reach UK soil they will be able to claim asylum and would then be dispersed to government processing centres all around the Southeast of England.

The Brexit campaigners argue that the arrangements in place with France are bilateral and have nothing to do with the EU.

In another twist, the UK Conservative Government’s hopes of securing a budget surplus by the time of the next general election rests on continuing high levels of net migration, according to Britain’s Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

The OBR’s latest economic outlook published this week renews its finding that net migration has a positive impact on the British economy and says that a ‘high level’ of net migration of 265,000 a year will fuel growth by £4.5bn by 2019-20 and by £6bn by 2020-2021.

The issue of migration in the UK has a long way to play out and the whole world will be watching the Brexit referendum with interest.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist