Does Leaving the EU fix Immigration?

In my previous blog I sketched out four main arguments about the impact of immigration:

  1. The impact on public services and quality of life.
  2. The impact on employment and wages.
  3. The fact that as a nation it should be up to us and nobody else who may come to the UK to live and work.
  4. The impact on local and national culture of people who may not share it or might even be in many ways opposed to it.

Here I’ll try to look at these a bit more closely and to consider whether they support a vote to leave the EU. As with the Referendum debate generally, there is a distinction between what leaving could do and what it will do. The one thing leaving definitely will do is to address the third of the arguments. This is important, but I believe not the whole of the matter. The particular alternative ideas for what the UK would do on leaving the EU make little or no headway on dealing with the other three arguments while also opening up the prospect of either making them worse (if for economic reasons we choose to increase immigration) or creating other problems (like considering whether to remove the rights of expats to return home after a certain period or repatriating past migrants). Even though remaining in will also have its uncertainties, they do not seem to have adverse consequences as significant as these and many of the practical issues arising out of the first two arguments could be dealt with without leaving the EU.

Economic impacts

The first two factors in the list  focus on two elements of the economic impact on ordinary people of immigration. They ignore to an extent, whether there are broader economic benefits such as increased GDP or increased levels of tax revenue for the Exchequer and rightly because both of these are more diffuse and opaque in their immediate impact on people unless very obvious – neither of these would be strong factors in opposing the decision of someone like Roman Abramovich to come to West London, the money he brought to Chelsea FC and the massively increased size of that business are very unlikely to have put a strain on public services, employment opportunities or wages, but few will have the time or inclination to work out whether Roman the carpenter from Lithuania and his family have been positive or negative in their overall contribution when they can see that they are taking up a handful of places in the local GP’s list, a few places in the local schools and he’s winning work against local tradesmen.

So, the question here should be, would leaving the EU address this concern? The proposal which seems to be generally being made by Leave campaigners is that were we to leave the EU, we could prevent Roman the carpenter from coming to the UK if he could not demonstrate in advance that he offered skills we had a shortage of and that he would not be a burden on the taxpayer. So, he might still be able to come, but not as of right, rather in the same way as prospective migrants from outside the EU.

That sounds reasonable enough, but I wonder whether it involves any real change. The reality is that a high proportion of migrants to the UK from elsewhere in the EU work and that even organisations sceptical about the impact of immigration like Migration Watch do not claim that there’s a net adverse effect on the UK economy (ie looking at the cost of providing services, additional revenues etc) from EU immigration. Roman and his family would probably still pass any reasonable test so the impact of a test would be to prevent those who could not or would not contribute positively or at least neutrally from coming. However, it is not clear why, if this is a strong motivation for leaving the EU, these particular concerns could not be dealt with by lesser measures (such as, for example, removing the right to claim state support from EU migrants until they had worked for a number of years – as per the negotiations Cameron had in February).

Cultural Change

I think this is a broader issue than mere membership of the EU. The arguments here apply at least as much to migration from outside the EU as from within it – perhaps even more so as some non-EU cultures are more dissimilar to British culture than many EU ones and on a more local level, the same unease is felt about migration even within the UK. It is a very common experience in rural villages for people who have moved there even from other parts of the same county to be considered “incomers” for many years (although ironically the foreign family moving to the village and opening a takeaway and sponsoring the village show might end up being welcomed more than the folks from a nearby city buying a weekend cottage). Whether we leave the EU or not, this sort of change will always happen for many reasons and few are arguing for controls on the ability of British people to relocate around the country. How significant an issue it is will tend to be a matter of degree and there may be a tipping point where beyond a certain proportion of any local population there is a significant change in local culture.

But this is something which has always happened – an example close to home is the change of many neighbourhoods in NW Leeds from being largely made up of long term families to having majorities of students and now returning to families. That didn’t happen because the local population got the universities shut down or quotas put on how many students could live on any one street but because of regulation to ensure decent standards of housing for students and economic factors making other areas become more suitable. Those are also areas where the pressure on schools and other services currently being felt are nothing at all to do with immigration.

It might also be that the imbalances in our existing society exacerbate the fear of excessive cultural change from new people. Not that many people are sitting around their kitchen table elsewhere in the EU dreaming of a new life in Accrington. Many people all around Britain and the world are doing precisely that about moving to London. That said, it is not unusual for people moving to a new area or country wanting to be near people from the old country if they can, as we can see with the large enclaves of British retirees on the Spanish coast. While leaving the EU and deciding to cut or end immigration would stop there being cultural change of this sort, if we decided to continue allowing in immigrants it would not be very realistic to then try to limit where they could go once here.


It should not be anybody else’s business who and how many can come to the UK is a strong argument. That us and us alone should be in control of our own destiny is a big theme for many of those campaigning for the UK to leave the EU. In principle it is sufficient in itself, not just in the context of immigration, to support a vote to leave regardless of any of the  practical consequences of leaving. Personally I think the argument from sovereignty is somewhat abstract. From a legal perspective, even within the EU, Parliament remains sovereign – even the most apprently binding EU law can be disregarded by Parliament and the organs of the State should we choose it. That doesn’t mean that taking such decisions is not without consequence but few decisions can be both important and without consequence.

While occasionally politicians might wring their hands and say “we’d love to but the EU prevents us” this is an excuse because it involves an implicit choice not to take the adverse consequences of going in the face of EU law. An example can be seen in the recent debate over saving steel production at Redcar and Port Talbot. Here it was quite true that the EU State Aid rules seriously constrained the government’s ability to intervene by providing subsidies to cover the losses being made by the steel companies. However, that didn’t mean that we could not, had we chosen, decide to take action in breach of those rules to secure the immediate future of the steel industry and live with the penalties which might follow some years later (this seems to be the approach the Italian government took in renationalising Ilva which is now subject to investigation by the Commission). It would also mean that we could, if we wanted to, after some later finding against the government by the Commission, simply refuse to implement that finding. That would of course involve a real fight and exposing the possibility that the government simply does not believe in 1970s style intervention and subsidy for failing industries and that the EU provides cover for what we would be doing anyway.

But I digress – the point here is that in practice, if we really wanted to take control over immigration from the EU, we could do so without leaving the EU. It would cause an almighty row but no EU country would in fact be able to force the UK to take any of their citizens if we simply turned all or some of them away at passport control. We have chosen not to.

The real problem? There are just too many

The answer to none of the four arguments about immigration is unavoidably that we must vote to leave the EU, even if doing so would allow for them all to be addressed in a different way to what is currently done or possible to do.

I suspect that the real issue for many of those concerned about immigration might not be as nuanced as those four arguments but simply that on some level they feel there are just too many immigrants. There is some evidence to show that people hugely overestimate the immigrant population but even if they didn’t, it is the perception which will count and also the belief that Brexit will lead to a perceptible fall in the immigrant population.

However, this is where we have to move on from the arguments of principle like the desire to retain sovereignty, away from what could be done to what would be done. And it is here that I think the case for Leave becomes much less plausible on the basis of controlling immigration.

The concerns about impacts on services, employment/wages, culture, all come from people’s perceptions of what has already happened and which they can see only getting “worse”. This is why there was a pledge by Cameron to get net migration down to the tens of thousands a year to at least stop the adverse perception of migration getting worse. Of course, in practice this is an area where the government has singularly failed to come anywhere near that aspiration, which itself is one of the reasons why immigration is such a big issue in the referendum campaign. It is too easy to conclude that a PM who is campaigning to Remain has failed to live up to his promise on immigration because of the EU.

However, I think it then becomes incumbent on the Leave campaign to set out how it would use the additional powers that leaving the EU is claimed to give them in order to do a better job of getting net migration down. And, as I discussed before, even that might well not be sufficient because just keeping the status quo when it is the status quo which is being rejected is unlikely to satisfy many of those who worry about the impact of the immigration which has already happened. I don’t think it is fanciful, whatever is said now by the Leave campaign, to think that even though it has not yet manifested itself, there would be a substantial proportion of people who would see zero net migration as inadequate and want to see that turn into a large negative number. If there is a majority of the public happy to rip up the EU Treaty I doubt that many of them would have any scruples about doing the same to the much less well-known Vienna Convention which would otherwise guarantee the rights of existing immigrants, if doing so were the only way in which to remedy the issues perceived about the migration which has already happened.

Anyway, perhaps that is over-pessimistic. More realistically, it is worth looking a little bit at the make up of immigration over time, particularly in the context of the different approaches suggested by different Leave campaigners. The first thing to note is that any of those who recommend moving to become members of EFTA or the EEA and thereby largely remedying the sovereignty issue in terms of the impact of EU law generally on the UK, are not proposing anything in relation to EU migration. This is because EFTA and EEA states are also required to allow free movement to EU nationals. So, any solution to immigration issues on Brexit would have to involve not being part of EFTA or the EEA either.

Another set of arguments made by Leave has been that Brexit would be an opportunity to treat immigrants from outside the EU equally with those from the EU whereas at present, immigration from outside the EU is too heavily restricted. This leads to difficulties in getting highly skilled non-EU people into the country (or curry chefs from Bangladesh, putting the Great British Curry house at risk) when even the least productive EU citizen can simply waltz in.

Leaving aside my cynicism about whether many people who turn their noses up at EU migrants would be completely sanguine about increased numbers of non-EU migrants, the graph above shows how inconsistent this argument about encouraging relations with countries outside the EU is. Assuming that Brexit does not lead to any significant immediate or long-term harm to the economy, even if we were to reduce net EU migration to zero, total net migration would still be at around 140,000 people a year. Relaxing the conditions on non-EU migrants would increase that. Allowing in EU migrants who met the same requirements as non-EU migrants would increase it further. At best net migration would be brought down from a city the size of Newcastle to one the size of Oxford. Not a particularly impressive result on what is meant to be the number one reason to leave the EU.

Taking the more optimistic predictions about Britain’s economic future, it seems likely that if anything there will be demand for more immigration, both skilled and unskilled. So, while like Australia or (to an extent) Switzerland we’d have control over immigration that would mean that three of the four factors I’ve discussed would not be addressed at all by Brexit because, like Australia and Switzerland, it could result in a much higher immigrant population than we currently have.

Of course, things could be improved on this front if the predictions of the Remain campaign about Brexit causing a recession came true. The graph shows that net migration of British people out of the UK was at its highest in the aftermath of the last recession and that both non-EU and EU migration to the UK at its lowest around the same time. However, it would seem rather a Pyrrhic victory over immigration to deal with it by crashing the economy to encourage British people to leave and for there to be noting for foreigners to come for!

The only other ways to make a big post-Brexit change to the total net migration level are potentially highly unappealing. First, by “encouraging” past migrants to leave – for me the only way this can be done other than in a rather BNP-ish way (they never wrote back when I asked them at their peak of success how much they’d pay) is for there to be explosive growth in opportunities elsewhere in the world, particularly in their countries of origin. I’m not sure in that scenario whether it would seem such a wise move to leave the EU if it were to be followed by big economic booms in the EU (and if the EU were booming, whether we could actually bear for people to leave the UK and deprive it of the skills and manpower to meet demand from the EU!).

The other would be to take the arguments about impacts of increases to the total population size on public services etc seriously and to subject returning British expats to the same sorts of points test as any other people seeking to enter the UK. Or perhaps to use the new airport in St Helena to export underproductive Brits to increase emigration. After all, if all 2 million Brits elsewhere in the EU were to come back in the space of a couple of years we’d need to build a couple of Birminghams for them to live in. Of course it would be crazy to stop British people coming home or to start shipping British people out against their will as a consequence of a fixation on net migration.

Even though immigration seems to be the big question, I don’t think Brexit is the answer to it.


No answers, only caricatures on HRA and EU

I have no interest in dredging through the judgments in the case infelicitously referred to by the Home Secretary in her Conference speech and the media’s reporting of them; if you’re interested, there’s a good account here. The story demonstrates something else which I think is more important. That there are at least two serious issues where the Conservative part of the coalition government is happy to wade in but without offering an actual answer. Human Rights is one of these and the other is membership of the EU. What these two issues have in common is that they are major areas in which there is a conflict between a system with an unwritten constitution where Parliament is sovereign and systems where the sovereignty of Parliament is subject to the jurisdiction of Courts and judges.

The Human Rights Act and a British Bill of Rights

On Human Rights, the “catflap” masked the real issues. The Conservatives campaigned in the last General Election on the basis of repealing the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights. Now, it is possible that there are no genuine criticisms of the HRA so this is a bad policy. However, the debate on the issue on the BBC’s Question Time on 6 October 2011 showed that most of the people on the panel and in the audience in Salford had reservations about the scope and content of human rights and how they should best be treated in English Law. Much of this debate was, admittedly, rather ill-informed. That does not mean that there should not or could not be a debate. The problem is that I suspect the government does not really know what would be in a British Bill of Rights or how it would look. It is more politically expedient to run a campaign without any specific end-point which allows for there to be someone or something to blame for the “mad” stories that come out in the tabloid press, like the one about Maya the cat and whether owning her meant it would be a breach of the HRA to send a Bolivian student who had outstayed his visa back to Bolivia. It is a bit 1984 – a shadowy enemy of reason is built up and made to be the target of a regular two minute hate.

It is quite possible to take the view of human rights as being nonsense upon stilts without being a barbarian. It is also perfectly possible to think the HRA is a bad piece of legislation without denying the importance of human rights and their protection in the UK. Perhaps it was unnecessary to make enforcement of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) possible in the courts of the UK – is the UK really a more civilised place with a better record on human rights now than it was prior to the HRA? Back in those dark days the UK was still a signatory of the ECHR and its provisions could still be applied, albeit in a more laborious and costly way.

At least from the press coverage (which of course is very partial and not particularly well informed) it would seem that the sorts of legislative acts that have been reviewed most often under the HRA are recent measures which ought, if the HRA had a normative effect (ie it altered the approach of the State to take proper account of human rights issues), to have been considered when passing the measures into law or policy. Older legislation which was passed without the direct need to consider the application of the HRA somehow seems to be less often challenged. Although, as an aside, I remember from my time in the DTI that the ECHR was something that was considered when putting together legislative proposals well before the HRA.

So, if discussion about the madness of the HRA is to happen, it needs to be on the back of some concrete proposals about precisely what is wrong with it as legislation and what needs to be done to address that. Not silly and factually misleading anecdotes from the Daily Mail. My suspicion is that the sorts of change that would ultimately be proposed are going to be technical and not very easily communicated or understood by ordinary people. Silly soundbites are more effective ways of doing nothing very much.

Membership of the EU

Membership of the EU is another similar topic. There are good arguments on both sides. At the same time there is at least a significant minority who are opposed, whether for good or bad reasons to continuing membership. Yet the Conservative leadership of the government tries to sit on the fence. Partly this is political and practical – being too overtly in favour of withdrawal would make remaining in coalition with the europhile LibDems rather difficult. The problem here is that there is no real consensus on what those on the right would do if they were to be granted their wishes – that is, not only to have a referendum on whether to leave the EU but to win it. There’s no coherent plan or dream about what we could do if only we weren’t part of the EU.

So, there’s unlikely to be any real clamour for a referendum on the issue from anyone who might actually deliver one. None of the three main parties has an agenda that it is itching to put in place if only it weren’t for that pesky EU (although Labour could most easily come up with one but shows no signs of doing so). As an issue it is barely of more interest to the general public than the tedious AV referendum all the time that there is no-one holding out a credible plan for how life would be improved in practice were we to cease to be members. A sign of how close this parallel is can be seen in the number of “anti-EU” campaigners who advocate proposing to join EFTA (or more accurately the EEA) as being a way of getting the free trade area that “we” (or rather, a generation of people who are almost entirely over 60 today) voted for. Quite how they think that joining Club Liechtenstein will enthuse the masses escapes me.

The constitutional conflict

In both instances the real problem is that conservatives ultimately believe that the British “way” is a better one. That we have survived and prospered for hundreds of years on the basis of an unwritten constitution where politicians and Parliament have been sovereign is the basis for this belief. There’s a recognition that both the HRA and membership of the EU import an alien political and constitutional culture by eroding that notion of Parliamentary sovereignty in its strongest sense. That is, the sense in which what Parliament has decreed, on the basis of its democratic legitimacy, is not to be subject to undemocratic review by either domestic or foreign Courts or officials. Of course, there is still a weaker form of Parliamentary sovereignty in that it is not disputed that Parliament could repeal the HRA or determine to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the EU institutions.

The exercise of this weaker form of sovereignty is what is sought by UKIP and those who do not want the HRA or the ECHR to apply so as to bring back the stronger form of sovereignty. The government, perhaps driven by pragmatism, doesn’t want to be so very assertive but rather to try to find a way of mitigating the weakness of the sovereignty that it has so that it does not have effects which are so offensive to its broader belief that it should be in charge of more things.

Politicians, if you want to do something, tell us exactly what and why. If you believe that it is fine in principle for the UK’s democratic institutions to continue to delegate and cede their sovereignty to the Courts and EU institutions then say so. If you believe that we have made a mistake in outsourcing these issues then say so. If you believe that in principle these changes ought to be made but that you have nothing concrete or attractive to put in their place when exercising the sovereignty that would be thereby returned, we need to know so that we can choose someone who has a better idea about what they would do. Make your choice openly. Then go and do it. Don’t insult everyone’s intelligence by sounding as if you’re interested in an issue, bang on about it and then do nothing.

The EU – why the UK does not need to be a Member

At its best, twitter is an excellent medium for throwing up interesting debates. Particularly if you are fortunate enough to follow people who are articulate enough to be able to make cogent points in 140 characters. Earlier today I intruded upon just such a debate about the benefits of the EU. Blogger @PME200 was inspired to write a blog about why he strongly supported the EU As I’ve complained that pro-EU English people rarely if ever provide any reasoned arguments in favour of the EU, it is only fair that I respond and set out why I think the pro-EU case is weak. To pre-empt any sticklers for accuracy (after all both PME200 and I, not to mention most of the other participants in the twitter debate are lawyers) I shall use EU throughout rather than switching between EEC, Common Market and EU.

First, I will take the liberty of trying to précis PME200’s main arguments. These are, broadly that:

  • The creation of a free trade area of 500m people is a remarkable achievement but the EU was from its inception always a political as well as economic project so it is misleading to say that we only ever signed up to the free trade zone.
  • If the UK just wanted the free trade aspects and stepped back into EFTA membership like Norway it would still have to pay a lot while getting nothing back from the EU development funds (eg ERDF), would still have to implement EU laws but would get almost no say in how those laws were made.
  • The lasting and unprecedented peace in the EU and the eradication of the serious Franco-German tensions that characterised the previous centuries are due largely to the EU.
  • The EU has promoted the rights of every citizen through the ECHR, social policy measures, immigration and unencumbered movement in the Schengen Area and has secured consumer benefits such as the lowering of mobile phone roaming charges that could not have been done by individual national regulators.

The curious thing about this set of pro-EU arguments for me is that I broadly agree with them, even though I think that there are other parallel causes for some of the effects attributed to the EU which may be stronger. The core of my opposition to continued UK membership of the EU is that there are few if any substantial benefits to membership which could not be secured by sovereign decisions of the UK independently of the EU. This is not limited to the economic benefits of membership of a free trade area, even though these are probably the most significant benefits of membership of the EU in practice.

Creating a large free trade area is impressive and has been of value but that does not mean that continued membership of the EU is essential to the UK’s interests. It would be possible to gain access to the single market not only by moving into the second division of EFTA membership but also by entering into bilateral arrangements either with the EU as an institution or even with a single EU Member State. As a practical matter it would be peculiar for the EU, however piqued it might be by a future UK decision to leave, to refuse to sign a bilateral trade treaty given that the UK would remain a significant market for many EU businesses. Even if this did transpire, the temptation for say Ireland or one of the other small EU nations to sign a bilateral agreement making it the preferred route between the EU and UK would surely be too great to resist. Once one EU Member State broke ranks this way there would be little in it for others to attempt to hamper interstate trade with that Member State, not to mention that such behaviour would be antithetical to the idea of the EU being a free trade area.

I agree that the political ambition of the EU was there from the start and that it is quite likely that the Heath government was somewhat disingenuous in selling membership on the basis of it being just membership of a free trade area. However, it is fair to say that the political aspects of the EU really only came into practical application much later. Back in the 1970s and 80s there was still much heavy lifting to do in creating the single market as the fundamental economic freedoms in the Treaty of Rome had not yet coalesced into practical legal positions. When doing something like ensuring mutual recognition of other Member States’ professional qualifications or stopping Member States from divvying up lucrative public contracts amongst national champions was still a matter for Law Journal conjecture the idea of a 27 nation federal superstate was sufficiently theoretical not to be high in many minds.

As I mentioned, EFTA membership is not the only way to keep in a European free trade area. However, I don’t think that the argument about the weakness of Norway’s relationship with the single market stack up that strongly. When the UK joined the EU there was real value in being part of the decision-making and legislative process because almost all legislation required unanimity amongst the then 12 Member States. This meant that tiny states like Luxembourg had a veto and accordingly a strong say in legislation. Understandably at the time this meant that EU Member States were careful about not expanding membership to countries that were likely to spend their entire time going “no”.

Now, things are different. Few areas of EU legislation are now subject to unanimity and the larger membership means that it takes a lot more than a single large Member State and a small ally to block or change legislation. The EFTA states would in practice gain only a superficial additional say in things by becoming EU members because they are all small countries. As small and generally rich (Iceland aside now) countries they also would get little from the ERDF, just as the UK lost a great deal of its ability to use EU or domestic money to regenerate deprived areas as the EU grew to include several relatively poor new members.

I won’t say too much on the EU as the reason for the last 65 years of peace in Western Europe. Clearly the co-operation between the combatant nations of WWII on the European mainland as they all worked to rebuild their shattered economies and societies was highly significant. The EU cannot take all the credit for the peace though. The parallel military co-operation of NATO and particularly the pre-emptive backing of the USA for the security of Western Europe is likely to have been at least as significant and a big departure from the situations prior to the two World Wars when the USA attempted to stay out of European conflict until this became untenable.

The final set of pro-EU arguments sit around the impact of the EU on our rights. Assuming that the ECHR has been overall a good way of promoting rights in the UK it is worth pointing out that the UK was one of the founders of the ECHR, which predates the EU, as well as having ratified the Convention well before becoming a member of the EU. While it is a requirement of EU membership to sign up to the ECHR, signing up to it doesn’t require EU membership.

As for the other social policy measures of the EU, these are a weak reason for membership. There is nothing in them which could not have been legislated for by the UK Parliament had it so wished. My personal view is that social policy elements are what helped to turn the mainstream of the British Left towards being pro-EU. The Labour Party had had a principled stance on the EU up until 1983 when it stated that in order to take the radical steps it proposed to save British industry it would (á la Lord Sugar in the Apprentice), with regret have to negotiate immediate but amicable withdrawal from the EU. Leaving aside the description of its 1983 manifesto as the longest suicide note in history, there are echoes of this Old Labour approach in Gordon Brown’s pledge of “British Jobs for British People”. The reality is that EU membership necessarily prevents Parliament from acting freely and principally in the interests of the UK. Old Labour understood this and was traditionally suspicious of the EU because of it, particularly as the economics of the fundamental freedoms from the Treaty of Rome is very clearly “neo-liberal” and free market.

However, a long period out of government and in opposition to a Conservative Party that was at best unlikely to prioritise social policies that were on the EU agenda followed up by the entertaining spectacle of eurosceptics holding Major’s wafer thin majority government to ransom made supporting the EU on the basis of its social policies very expedient. The fact is that those social policies could have been enacted by a majority government that liked them – the EU was not needed to provide their benefits. As Major had negotiated an opt-out from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty it wasn’t as if the EU would have been able to deliver those social policies in the UK prior to a change of government.

PME200 can have the European Commission’s action on mobile roaming charges as this has been quicker and more effective than national action might have been (although fixed line telecoms interconnection rates fell far more rapidly in the 90s without the Commission forcing it), but it is hardly the stuff to get the sceptics changing their minds. A counter-example might be postal services liberalisation, which would have been more difficult to achieve without being done on an EU level, but there aren’t a lot of people using it as an example of the benefits of the EU.

One does not need to be a “little Englander” to think that the benefits of EU membership are overstated, that those benefits could be equally well obtained without membership and that whatever the historical benefit of the EU as a cohesive force preventing war, the UK could leave it without setting the French and Germans at each others’ throats in the Alsace. That huge negatives of the EU like the CAP, which is particularly disastrous for agriculture in developing countries having access to the EU’s 500m consumers, don’t need to be brought into the debate to show the inessential nature today of the UK’s EU membership is just the icing on the cake.