For some, migration was the main issue within the EU referendum debate. In the UK and across Europe, the migrant crisis is causing rising tensions and is putting increased pressure on the EU to act decisively and kick-start the process of reformation. The current push to bring Turkey into the Union risks exacerbating the situation, with the UK government openly advocating extending the borders of the EU to Syria. This often emotional topic has wormed itself deep into the referendum debate, and the wider discussions around the current and future states of the Union itself. In the year leading up to September 2015, 617,000 people arrived in Britain. That includes all non-British nationals moving here. In the same year, 294,000 people left the UK too, making net migration (all those coming in minus all those leaving) for all British and foreign nationals around 323,000; this is the highest level since comparable records began in 1991. Compare this to David Cameron’s “no ifs, no buts” net migration target of 100,000 a year set in 2010 and reaffirmed in 2015, and concerns over our power to control our borders can be more easily justified.
In terms of movement within the EU, an estimated 257,000 citizens from other EU nations migrated to Britain in the year to September 2015, and 85,000 emigrated abroad to the EU from the UK, so net migration from the EU to the UK was around 172,000. Again, this level of EU immigration is historically high, with over 100,000 more EU nationals arriving than leaving consistently for the past few years, up from an average of around 10,000 a year going back ten years or so ago. Currently, the UK only has full control of immigration of non-EU nationals, of which some 360,000 arrived in 2015 – 103,000 more than EU nationals. This calls into question our ability to deal with high immigration outside the rules of the single market. Despite this, immigration from inside the EU has increased by 55% in the past four years compared to a fall of 13% from outside.
Currently, there are around three million EU citizens living in the UK. The economic effects of immigration are widely understood to be positive. EU migrants in Britain are net contributors to public finances, contributing 4.5% more in taxes than they received in benefits since 1999, and are 50% less likely than Brits to receive benefits or tax credits. The UK is also facing a demographic crisis which immigration has the potential to ease. Birth rates are down and the population is aging, which will put increased pressure on public finances, particularly for future generations as baby-boomers move towards retirement. Furthermore, businesses across the UK are already dealing with significant skills shortages, and some sectors in particular are increasingly reliant on skilled migrant labour to fill the gap. Even with current levels of migration, many businesses are struggling to recruit. In raw economic terms, closing borders would be bad for the UK economy. Many in the UK and across Europe however, are increasingly concerned with the social and cultural impacts of large-scale immigration rather than the economic impacts.
It is clear that migration to the UK and within Europe is high by historical standards and continues to increase at a rapid rate. The opportunity for the UK to take control over its borders is one of the main forks of the leave argument, but there is no agreement on the extent that leaving the EU will influence our ability to curb the free movement of people. Indeed, many of the proposed exit strategies would see the UK retaining full access to the single market, which means accepting free movement completely. In the short term at least, those expecting a big control shift over borders following an exit are likely to be disappointed. Outside the EU, Britain would be able to pursue routes to increase sovereignty on this issue but this would likely be a lengthy process only available to us after agreeing on our future relationship with Europe. There may be slight gains to be had in the short term, but substantial change should not be anticipated in the near future.
Measures to qualm fears over mass immigration are included in Cameron’s EU deal, such as the “emergency brake”. This part of the deal however, is generally deemed to be the most high risk element, with the lowest chance of becoming part of EU law. To be passed, the emergency brake faces a stringent political process, having to pass through the EU Commission, receive unanimous support from the 27 other member nations, and survive the threat of legal challenges within the EU court. Even then, the decision could be revoked or repealed without the possibility of the UK veto. There is a unilateral “emergency brake” of sorts within the EEA agreement, meaning non-EU EEA members have more potential control over their borders than EU members, even whilst being part of the Schengen area. Lichtenstein, whose immigrant population is 33% of its total, has been restricting the free movement of people since 1998. Norway has never restricted the inflow of people, despite imposing strict border security measures alongside Sweden, Denmark and others. This may be for fear of retaliation from the EU, similar to the experience of Switzerland who were temporarily expelled from various EU programmes following their vote to curb immigration in spite of EU rules. That being said, immigration is not just an issue for the UK but across the whole continent. Currently it is a burning issue in even the highest EU institutions and is expected to remain so for years to come. The implication here may be that regardless of UK membership, the EU must pursue reformation of its border policies. Certainly, the rise of fringe right-wing political groups in Europe is fueling that particular fire. Whilst it seems inevitable that something needs to change, the fact the EU may have to address the freedom of movement enshrined in the single market and upon which the Union is based, makes this a significant political quandary within an institution often referenced for its political sluggishness.