Britain has given away control of immigration from EU member states to Brussels, retaining the power only to control non-EU immigration. This has led to huge disparities where Commonwealth citizens with family in Britain struggle to obtain visas whilst EU citizens with little link with the UK can automatically work here. It has also contributed to the largest ever inflows into the UK in our history, with the UK population rising by more than 4 million from 1997, with the number of migrants rising sharply after 2004 when eight former Warsaw Pact countries joined the EU. This figure is only slightly less than the entire population of the Irish Republic. Furthermore, this is only the net figure. The gross figure, if we deduct the many UK citizens who have settled abroad, is much higher, Without immigration, the UK population would have stabilised out at just under 60 million. Already, we are one of the most densely-populated areas in the world and without drastic action, things are likely to get worse..
It would be wrong to suggest that immigration was the principal reason for the UK voting to leave the EU on 23rd June 2016. On the other hand, it was definitely a major factor. A poll for Sky News in October 2013 found more than two thirds of the British public believe the UK population is too large, while the same percentage (67%) of those questioned said that the government’s attempt to reduce net migration to 100,000 a year was not sufficient and that more should be done. More than a quarter of those polled (27%) believe the wave of immigration Britain has experienced in the last decade has brought no positive benefit to the nation, and more than half (52%) say they would be more likely to vote for a party that promises significantly to reduce the level of migration.
The current situation is very unsatisfactory. Free movement of people is one of the four freedoms of the EU’s Single Market. The Free Movement Directive 2004/38/EC sets the rules. It does not allow unconditional free movement. A national of an EU member state must reside for a continuous period of five years to gain the right of “permanent residence” in that member state. Until then, a national of an EU member state and his/her family can reside for up to three months in another member state provided that they do not become an “unreasonable burden” on the social assistance system of the country they move to. After three months, the person will have to prove that he/she has a job in that country, is a student or has “sufficient resources” to keep living there without becoming a burden.
However, the Directive provides for a series of exceptions restricting national governments’ ability to expel people who do not meet these requirements. For example, a national of an EU member state who moves to the UK to find a job can remain in the UK for more than three months if this person can prove that he/she is continuing to seek employment and has “a genuine chance” of finding work . Family members of EU citizens – regardless of whether they are EU citizens or not – are also granted certain rights, including access to social assistance . This has caused particular resentment in the UK, as our welfare state includes many non-contributory, means-tested benefits, making it more generous than that of some other EU member states which are more contribution-based. Some access is restricted by a “right to reside” test, but this restriction has been challenged by the European Commission, which regarded it as discriminatory.
Leaving the EU will enable the UK to reduce immigration from the EU. In the short term, we would not be able to cope if all migration were to stop, but we could introduce a visa system and only allow the workers themselves to come here rather than bringing their families with them. Considerable restriction on immigration is possible even if the Government decided to retain our access to the Single Market by re-joining EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, as an interim arrangement. The current EFTA members, apart from Switzerland, have access to the Single Market via the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement.
The EEA agreement does actually allow exemptions from free movement of people which are not available to EU members. Firstly, under Articles 112(1), 113 and Protocol 15 of the EEA agreement, non-EU members may apply what amounts to an emergency brake on migration. Liechtenstein has availed itself of these exemptions for some time and no one is putting undue pressure on this country to end the “emergency.” Under the EEA/EFTA arrangement, it is also possible to place greater restrictions on EU migrant workers to bring their families with them. We would also have greater freedom to restrict non-British EU citizens’ access to benefits and to deny residency to those who are deemed to not have sufficient resources to support themselves This latter point is particular important as the generous benefit system in operation within the UK is a big “pull” factor in drawing migrants over here – both from within and outside the EU.
Fears of Turkey’s accession exacerbated an already unsatisfactory situation have receded somewhat since the referendum campaign, as the country has been heading in a more authoritarian direction in the last year, which makes it less likely it wil be allowed to join the EU. Furthermore, it has been the UK which (unwisely) has been one of the greatest champions of Turkish EU membership. Our departure makes it less likely that the country will ever join.
Of course, if the downward pressure on the international value of sterling continues, working here will become less attractive to foreign workers, both from the EU and beyond. Recent migration statistics suggest that numbers of people arriving from the EU have started to fall already and more EU nationals are returning home, so things are moving in the right direction before we have even left.
There are two other important reasons why leaving the EU will be a benefit as far as migration is concerned. Firstly, advances in robotics means that many of the immigrants already over here will no longer be needed in a decade or so. Andy Haldane of the Bank of England suggested that as many as 15 million UK jobs were potentially at risk of automation. Even allowing for some degree of exaggeration, it is quite clear that we do not need to long-term liability of any further migrants who come over here to work, bringing their families, only to see their jobs disappear after a few years.
Finally, there is the issue of cultural cohesion. The former European Commissioner Peter Sutherland told the House of Lords home affairs select committee in 2012 that the European Union should be doing its best to undermine the sense of homogeneity in countries like the UK. It is a harsh fact that people are less likely to make sacrifices on behalf of people that they do not feel to be like them. In USA, the states with the greatest resistance to the introduction of a European-style welfare state are those which are the most ethnically diverse. Multi-cultural societies are also more violent. The ethnic melting-pot that is Brazil has a murder rate 20 times higher than the UK, and South Africa, the “rainbow nation,” has a murder rate 4½ times the global average. By contrast, the lowest crime rates are to be found in countries with little immigration like South Korea and Japan.
Brexit and the end of free movement of people therefore offers us immense advantages and will enable us to tackle the legacy of the failed policy of multiculturalism, encouraged by the EU and enthusiastically endorsed by our own politicians, particularly the Labour Government of Tony Blair. In the longer term, it will also prove a great asset in keeping unemployment down as robotics advance and jobs disappear.
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