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Analysis: The migration debate

Video in which Anthony Salamone interviews Prof Christina Boswell (The University of Edinburgh) on the debate on migration in the EU referendum.
I’m Christina Boswell. I’m Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh, and I specialise on EU immigration and asylum policy. So, Christina, migration has been one of the central issues in the referendum campaign. Why has this been the case? Well, migration is one of the major issues of concern to many people in the UK. In fact, an IPSOS MORI poll suggests that, for 44% of the population, it’s the number one - the salient concern that they have. Now, this concern has become particularly noticeable to relation to rising numbers of immigrants coming to the UK. And, in 2010, David Cameron set a target of reducing net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands.
And that has become a huge focus of public debate and media attention. So, every three months we get these new statistics saying what the net migration figures are. And they have depicted a rise in net migration, and we’re at an all-time peak of 303,000 net migrants coming to the UK every year. So, obviously, that’s now become the focus of public attention and concern.
Now, the ‘Leave’ campaign has been very quick to mobilise these concerns and has sought to make migration, and concerns about EU immigration in particular, really the key focus of their campaign, at the moment, and, arguably, that’s because - some people say they’ve, in quotes, ‘lost the economic argument’, so they’re now turning to an argument that they feel that they can win and that taps into voters’ concerns about immigration. Different studies have tried to measure the effect of EU immigrants in the UK. How accurate are these studies? Well, it really depends. Studies tend to measure two things. One is the labour market effects of immigration, which means how immigration affects salaries and how it affects the employment of so-called ‘native’ workers.
So does it displace or does it complement native workers in the labour market? Now, those studies are quite tricky, because it’s very difficult to measure and to isolate the effects of immigration on the labour market. And most studies then have to rely on studying incidents where there’s been a huge influx of immigrants in a particular area, and then one can discern what the effects might be on salaries and on employment in those areas. But that’s quite a rare occurrence. Of the studies that exist, they all tend to agree the case that the impact of any are relatively negligible.
Okay, so there might be a very small impact in certain sectors where there is a concentration of immigrants - for example, in certain low-skilled sectors where immigrants tend to be concentrated - but they’re very, very small impacts. Now, the second type of study looks at the fiscal impacts of immigration. So, that’s really looking at how much tax do immigrants pay, and how much do they take out of the public purse in terms of use of public services. Now, those studies - or, I’d say, the most authoritative studies, including some conducted by the University College London - economists at UCL - suggest, actually, that EEA or EU immigrants have had a net positive impact on the public purse.
So, for example, it’s been estimated that, since 2000, immigration from the EU has involved, on average, contributions of around £2600 per year - as opposed to the average rest of UK, where there’s a net burden of about £1800 a year. So, from the research, it seems pretty clear that immigrants do contribute in terms of paying taxes and not taking as much out of public services. In 2004, the European Union enlarged to bring in countries Eastern and Central Europe. What role did that enlargement have on the public debate on migration in the UK? So, that was actually quite a turning point in the debate on immigration in the UK, and the debate on EU immigration, in particular.
So, as many of you will remember, in 2004, the then Labour government decided to grant immediate labour market access to the eight countries acceding to the EU. They didn’t have to grant immediate access, and most other EU countries put in place a seven-year moratorium on access to free movement. But the UK, Ireland and Sweden were the three EU countries that didn’t introduce such a moratorium. And, at the time, it was seen as being very beneficial economically. It was at a time of very low unemployment, and really economic growth in the UK. Now, unexpectedly, or unpredictably, immigration from those eight countries was much higher than expected. So, it rose to about 80,000 net migrants from those countries in 2007.
And that was when, I would say, public concerns about immigration, and this focus on numbers of EU immigrants, really began to emerge. Now, we should note that, in the next wave of enlargement - so, when Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007 - the government by that point did impose a seven-year moratorium on rights to free movement. So, we’ve only had a more increase in immigration from those two countries. And the other thing I think that’s often ignored in this debate is that, actually, most EU immigrants at the moment don’t come from those Central European countries. So, A8 migration - immigration from those eight countries that acceded in 2004, is only 27% of EU immigration.
About half of current EU immigration is from the old Member States - so, it’s from the southern EU Member States, such as Spain, Greece, Italy, also France, who’ve been affected by recession. And I think that’s often ignored in the debate. You mentioned the UK government’s net migration target. What impact might Brexit have on this target? Well, I think the first thing to note about that is about half of net migration is comprised of non-EU nationals, okay. Now the government has been trying everything - pulling all the stops out possible, to reduce those forms of non-EU immigration - but it hasn’t really succeeded.
So, then, the question becomes: Would a potential post-Brexit government fare any better in reducing EU immigration? Now, of course, if we were to leave the EU, in principle, we would have the prerogative - we would be able to withdraw from provisions on free movement. That almost certainly means we wouldn’t be able to participate in the Single Market. So, the first dilemma that any post-Brexit government would
have would be: Do we want to participate in the Single Market? If so, then we have to be part of free movement of persons provisions.
Let’s assume that a post-Brexit government says: Well, we do want to withdraw from the Single Market, because it’s so important for us to control EU immigration. In principle, that government could impose a constraint or even a total ban on EU immigration. But, then, the economy would face quite acute shortages, especially across many low-skilled professions, where EU immigrants are currently taking up jobs that can’t be filled by British nationals. So, I think, this is again - a missing dimension of the debate
is: What kind of pressure would emerge from businesses affected by such a stop on immigration, and how would the UK government respond to that - given it’s been unable to reduce non-EU immigration, despite its best efforts, because of business pressure - would it be any better in reducing EU immigration, even if it were formally entitled to do so? How has the migration situation in the Mediterranean impacted on the UK’s migration debate? Well, the Mediterranean situation actually raises quite different issues from those raised by free movement provisions, but the two are often conflated in current debates.
So, the migrant crisis raises issues for the UK in terms of, first of all, its asylum policy - so, how does it treat and process applications of refugees who apply for asylum in the UK? And, secondly, how does it deal with irregular migration from those countries where migrants are emanating - those who are currently seeking asylum in the EU. Now, both of those issues - how the UK deals with its asylum policy and how it deals with irregular entry - are not constrained in any way by current EU provisions. Okay, so the UK is party to several directives on asylum, but they don’t substantively influence the UK’s autonomy or leeway in asylum policy.
And, in fact, arguably, the UK has benefited from EU cooperation to address trafficking and irregular migration. And it’s opted in to a number of measures - and just unilaterally decided to opt in to a number of measures - to help combat trafficking. For example, through naval patrols in the Mediterranean, or through being part of various databases which allow EU Member States to circulate, share information about irregular migrants. So, the thing that the EU cannot control - or that the UK cannot control as part of the EU - is the influx of EU nationals. And that’s a quite separate discussion.
Now, the only potential way - and the UKIP has drawn attention to this possible loophole - the only potential way that the migrant crisis could affect the UK, or could constrain its ability to control immigration,
is: if refugees were to arrive and be accepted in EU countries, and then were to gain citizenship in those EU countries - once they have EU citizenship, then they would be entitled to move to the UK. But let’s just take an example. Say you were a Syrian refugee. You’ve been granted asylum in Germany. It will take you around eight years to gain citizenship in Germany. You will have to demonstrate knowledge of the German language. So, the idea that you would then - having integrated into German society, acquired German language, lived there for eight years with your family - that you would then decide to move to the UK, after that initial phase, is rather unlikely.
And, also, let’s take into account that delay - that kind of eight-year transition period. So, the idea that migrants who are reaching the EU at the moment could somehow then be swiftly entitled to move to the UK is really actually very misleading. Christina, thank you.
Anthony Salamone and Christina Boswell, Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh, discuss the role of migration in the EU referendum debate.
(Videographer: Tim Askew)
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