What Migration Watch aren’t telling you about what leaving the single market would mean
Migration Watch, the anti-immigration organisation, published a report yesterday calling for the UK to leave the single market to reduce net EU immigration. Like so much of what is said about migration, the incomplete nature of the argument is deliberately misleading. In particular, Migration Watch are guilty of hiding the true costs to working people of leaving the single market.
Migration Watch argue that, while southern Europe remains mired in austerity, and eastern Europe remains poor, there will continue to be forces driving especially younger people from such countries to the UK to seek work. Staying in the single market, they say, means there can be no effective controls on this process, so we need to leave to reduce net migration. There are so many things unsaid in this argument that it seems clear they are deliberately seeking to mislead people. I have saved the biggest omission until last in this list of five key missing pieces to the Migration Watch argument.
1. Net migration to the UK is not solely, or even mainly, about free movement from the rest of Europe
Around half of the migration into the UK is from outside the EU. It has nothing to do with free movement or the single market. The Conservatives’ impractical target of reducing net migration to below 100,000 a year was always about more than EU migration, and even if no one was allowed to enter the UK from the rest of Europe – a much harsher regime than applies to any other part of the world – migration from outside the EU would still have to be cut by more than a third from its current – highly policed and restricted – levels.
2. Leaving the single market wouldn’t stop migration from the rest of Europe
Unless we actually adopted a position barring Europeans from entering the UK to live and work there would clearly still be some people moving to the UK to work from the EU. Ministers and other advocates of leaving the EU have still argued that there should be provisions for EU citizens to come and work here, either on the same basis as people from all over the world, or through special arrangements. If we were still allowing skilled migrants in to fill vacancies in the health service like doctors, nurses and dentists (let alone other industries); and if we were still allowing employers who cannot fill vacancies in lower skill occupations like harvesting, catering, social care and so on – we would still have a considerable inflow from the rest of Europe. And many of the migrants to the UK from the rest of the EU (not as many as in past generations, but still sizeable numbers) are Irish (22,000 in 2013 alone), and no one is seriously suggesting that the free movement area covering the British Isles should end. None of these elements of EU migration to the UK are mentioned in Migration Watch’s analysis.
3. Leaving the single market could put upwards pressure on net migration numbers
Free movement is, of course, a two way street. While more people have come to the UK from the rest of Europe in the last fifteen years, some people have always headed in the other direction – there are well over a million UK citizens in the rest of Europe compared with the 3 million EU citizens in the UK. If we shut down our borders completely, emigration would be stopped too, reducing the impact on net immigration by up to a third.
4. There are so many other ways to manage migration – why aren’t we exploring these?
Actually, Migration Watch’s report does contain a hint about a significant way to have an impact on EU migration into the UK. They say that one of the key reasons that people move to the UK from eastern Europe and now southern Europe too is the lack of decent jobs in those countries. But there are ways that could be addressed. In the last quarter of the 20th century, EU membership led to Ireland changing from being a net exporter of people (as it had been for over a century beforehand) to being a net importer. In those days, politicians running the EU and its member states were more keen on using the EU as an engine of economic growth. But it’s not inevitable that southern Europe should be mired in austerity, or eastern Europe stay poor. These are the result of political choices, and they could be changed.
And migration could be managed so much better in the UK than it is now. As the TUC has argued, we could ensure that migrants were not exploited by bad bosses, and therefore reduce undercutting of the existing workforce. And we could spread the overall economic benefits of migration more fairly so that communities who have been abandoned, and are most concerned about migration, could have access to better education, health services, housing and jobs.
5. And it’s economics that is the big omission in the Migration Watch report
Leaving the single market, as Migration Watch advocate, would have huge costs. The British economy would suffer as our exports (and components and raw materials) became more expensive, and consumers would suffer as they saw prices in the shops rise, and household wages fall. British workers would in particular lose out because membership of the single market also protects our rights at work.
Not telling people the costs to them of leaving the single market is tantamount to pretending there would be no costs. It’s up to us to make it clear what people would be risking if the Government backed such a hard Brexit. We want to put jobs and rights at work first, because what’s good for British workers is good for Britain.