On immigration, the UK has failed to use its wiggle room for years

Sophie Jarvis

September 12, 2018

Immigration, much like greed, is good. And while freedom of movement has been overwhelmingly beneficial to the UK, the Brexit vote made it crystal clear that not everyone agrees. People have felt as though their schools were bursting at the seams, their hospital waiting times increased, and their communities eroded.

But compromise is key in the immigration debate: the UK can preserve the key economic benefits of freedom of movement and give the public more confidence in the system. However, successive governments failed to utilise the wiggle room under various treaties and directives long before the referendum, and now in the negotiations, the Government is once again failing to think outside the box when it comes to immigration.

There are numerous policies that governments could have adopted to both prevent Brexit in the first place and continue to allow freedom of movement. Though, to be clear, these reforms aren’t positive in themselves, they’re just less bad than the worst option of pulling up the drawbridge. These policy reforms would hopefully prevent worse policies from being adopted.

No job? There’s the door

One of things you hear most often from those opposed to free movement with the EU is that “people come over here without a job”.

The Government could, under current EU law, force migrants to leave the UK after three months if they weren’t working or actively seeking work, if they didn’t have a member of family working, or if they didn’t have sufficient funds to live.

Currently, the UK doesn’t register the arrival or departure of EU migrants, which renders it impossible to dictate how long people have been here without working. In Belgium, because they insist on every EU migrant registering at their local town hall, they have the ability to write to unemployed EU migrants asking them to return home. We could have always done this, yet we never have.

Undercutting jobs?

The “3 months? No job? You’re out” policy would definitely placate some Brexiteers, but what about the ones that chant “what about all those Eastern Europeans undercutting British workers?” Well, we know that an increase in low skilled migrants actually leads to British workers being promoted at work. But that doesn’t sound very sexy.

What does sound slightly sexier is if the UK were to set out that British workers couldn’t be undercut by EU workers taking employment for a lower wage. This could be done by amending the Posted Workers Directive – a policy supported by Emmanuel Macron, meaning that the Tories could certainly curry favour with the President of France if we asked for this in the final Brexit deal.

Finally, the infamous NHS bus definitely swung a few votes. Like Trump’s wall, extra funding to the NHS was a PR triumph. Currently, the NHS doesn’t do a very good job of recouping costs for treatment provided to foreign citizens, whereas EU states are good at charging the NHS for British citizens.

All of these demonstrate a series of missed opportunities for the UK – and this frigid and rigid behavior will be its downfall. Other European countries are offering innovative immigration policies: Estonia is offering e-residency for only €100 and your fingerprints, and Portugal is offering citizenship to businesses owners employing more than 10 people. In Germany, Angela Merkel is keen on cutting benefits for free riders, and in Belgium immigrants are registered so they can effectively manage who’s coming in and who’s coming out. These might not be the right policies for the UK, but to say that European states aren’t being innovative and responding to concerns on immigration is to ignore the evidence.

The EU may well be a monolithic, mercantilist bloc, but the UK has failed to utilise its wiggle room for years – and more importantly, in these negotiations.

One of the greatest issues in the Brexit debate is that the detail doesn’t translate well. Let’s face it, Trump’s tweets are like dopamine hits of bemusement, whereas reading Brexit policy is like wading through thick treacle, while not being able to dip your finger in for a lick. But all of this simply serves as evidence that the nitty gritty is worth delving into.


Written by Sophie Jarvis

Sophie Jarvis is a policy adviser at the Adam Smith Institute.


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