Migration, the lightning rod of the EU referendum

utaUta Staiger, Deputy Director of the UCL European Institute, argues that the EU-Turkey deal should have no role in the Brexit debate, yet it brings the crucial question of the European Union and migration into focus at an inopportune time.

Migration has not been out of the news in months. Net migration into Britain has never been higher, despite the prime minister’s promises to reduce numbers “no ifs, no buts”, and it consistently clings to the top spot in British voters’ list of priority concerns. Inextricably linked with EU membership, given the principle of free movement, it has become the touchstone of the Brexit campaign.

Arguably, however, migration today has found its most wretched visual symbol in the millions of people risking their lives crossing the Aegean in order to escape their war-torn countries of origin. And it has found its most troubling political symbol in the EU-Turkey deal, sealed on 18 March to stem precisely this flow.

To be clear, this deal has (or should have) nothing to do with the issue of British EU membership. It addresses the influx of ‘irregular’ migrants, the vast majority of them refugees and asylum seekers – not EU citizens moving within a Europe-wide labour market. In any event, the UK remains outside the borderless Schengen zone, has an opt-out of EU asylum policies, and a bilateral treaty with France that keeps most irregular migrants on the other side of the channel.

And yet, the crisis and the controversial deal epitomise just what is at stake in the Brexit referendum. It provides ceaseless media resources to those who confound, whether deliberately or not, the refugee crisis with freedom of movement. It raises doubts about the EU as a global actor capable of acting efficiently, decisively, and according to its own high standards of international and human rights law. Above all, it is an explosive and emotive cocktail that is likely to trump fact and reason in equal measure – ready to come to a head just as Britain’s electorate heads to the polls.

Not that factual clarity is easy to come by in this most sensitive of political topics. Never one to shy away from the difficult questions, the UCL European Institute teamed up with openDemocracy to explore it further. We invited experts to contribute their views on migration and Brexit in these pages and during a related public event. Overall, these suggest that there are two different cases to be made, one privileging an economic, the other a political angle. The balance between these two in the eyes of the voter is likely to become the decisive factor shaping the outcome of the referendum.

The economic case

Freedom of movement – the right of EU citizens to live and work in other member states – is a founding principle of the EU. As such, it has an inbuilt economic rationale, aiming as it does to boost member states’ economies by providing them with a mobile workforce. From a macroeconomic perspective, mobility of labour certainly has an overall positive economic effect. It can bring innovation, dynamism and opportunities – for British as well as EU workers.

But with net EU migration to the UK at an all-time high of 3.3 million, nearly half of the British population now think this is negative for the country. In the debate on British EU membership, the economic case is therefore built around two key questions. Is immigration an economic burden or gain for the UK? And is the country’s long-term growth and prosperity dependent upon access to the single market – and thus worth the trade-off with continued freedom of movement?

As to the first, there is by now persuasive evidence, not least by UCL’s Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini (The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK, 2014; summarised for openDemocracy by their colleague Ian Preston), that immigration has been economically beneficial for the UK as a whole. As Damian Green reminds us, around 52,000 EU citizens work for the NHS, while businesses owned by EU citizens employ 1.5 million people in the UK. Indeed, as research published by Oxford’s Migration Observatory this week found (and Catherine Barnard and Amy Ludlow’s qualitative research backs), pull factors for EU citizens to come to Britain are above all work-related. Often ‘pushed’ to leave by domestic economic crises in the euro zone, most of these migrants will have been educated in, and at the expense of, their home country. While they are more likely to claim tax credits to top up low pay, there is no evidence for ‘welfare tourism’. Indeed, EU citizens in the UK pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits. UKIP MEP Steven Woolfe’s suggestion that it is only “indigenous taxpayers” who pay for infrastructure and benefits is in any case manifestly untrue: it is rather doubtful the government would let tax income go to waste, only because it is paid by non-Brits.

Christian Dustmann, professor of economics and director of the UCL Centre of Research and Analysis of Migration

The second economic argument is more disputed. Does the UK’s economic prosperity depend upon access to the EU’s single market, its red tape notwithstanding – as our contributor Roland Rudd for one argues and the government’s ‘balance of competences’ review found in 2014? Would Brexit really bring the economic ‘leap into the dark’ the Remain camp continues to warn about? Certainly, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned only this week that a Brexit “could cause severe regional and global damage”. Yet while Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, concurred by calling Brexit the biggest risk to Britain’s financial stability in the short term, he would not be drawn into commenting on its long-term consequences. He is also not alone in allowing for potential risks of remaining in the EU, not least the uncertainty in the euro zone. Predictions of economic scenarios post-Brexit continue to vary.

Two queries arise in consequence. First, if we accept that single market access is crucial for Britain’s short and long-term prosperity, how could this be squared with what is simply its conditio sine qua non: freedom of movement? None of the comparable options (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland) are particularly attractive. But would the UK really stand a chance of being given differential treatment? Legally speaking, the political leverage in negotiating exit, governed as it is by Article 50, make that particular scenario unlikely, as Alan Renwick for one has recently argued.

Secondly, there may be economic trade-offs to managing immigration differently in and by itself, as Open Europe’s Stephen Booth argues. Even in the most favourable scenario, where the UK negotiates a comprehensive set of free trade agreements (FTAs) with the EU and other countries, he finds that a reduction of net migration post-Brexit may not necessarily be favourable for the UK economy. Add to this the concerns voiced by some, for instance John Springford of the Centre for European Reform, that even this most favourable of scenarios is not the unalloyed good it is made out to be, and the picture gets more complicated still.

John Springford, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

From an economic perspective, then, the UK seems to benefit both from immigration and being part of the EU’s single market. Why then, in Stephen Booth’s words, should it be worth sacrificing the latter to reduce the former?

The political case

The obvious answer, and this is the crux of the matter, is that it is not (just) the economy, stupid. Immigration is above all a political issue with a whole range of ramifications, which successive governments have been unable to address. Arguably, this is because migration taps into several anxieties at once. In our context, I suggest there are three that are of particular relevance: welfare, citizenship, and security.

However beneficial to the overall economic picture, and however positive the fiscal effect, immigration does of course have distributary effects. These are particularly noticeable in localities where the change has been fastest, as Steve Ballinger highlights. Demands on housing and public services are increasing (even though immigration is not the only contributory factor). Also, as Dustmann and Frattini concede, new arrivals to the UK are likely to downgrade, that is, initially take jobs below their level of qualification. As such, they do put pressure on wages, above all in the lower wage group. Restricting EU migrants’ claims to in-work or out-of-work benefits in any case resonates particularly strongly with the public. Disregard these realities at your peril!

This ties in with questions concerning citizenship and integration. Part and parcel of EU citizenship is that it disallows discrimination against nationals of other member states in order to favour your own. This sits uneasily with many. Does a status that is effectively equivalent to citizenship not need to be earned? Is there a case to be made for reserving certain rights and privileges for national citizens? How much socio-cultural heterogeneity can a national community absorb while still sustaining the mutual obligations behind a good society, as panellist David Goodhart put it elsewhere? At an extreme of the political spectrum, these concerns have turned into full-blown nativist unease with demographic developments per se, portrayed as threatening the nation’s ‘destiny’.

But the question of citizenship also goes beyond these well-rehearsed questions. Who, politically, should be having a say in a country’s future? Today, plenty of citizens are likely to live outside the country yet the government of their country of origin remains accountable to them. At the same time, plenty of non-citizens live within a country – they often make their entire lives there – without the ability of holding government to account. The result has been described as a “mismatch” between citizenship and political authority (Rainer Bauböck). Should not those with an active stake in the polity’s future have a valid claim to (“stakeholder”) citizenship, as Bauböck termed it – and as Amy Ludlow hinted in interview? Or is this precisely where EU citizenship oversteps its mark?

Amy Ludlow, affiliated lecturer in law and college lecturer at the University of Cambridge.

Last but not least the concerns regarding security. It is a difficult one to call, with both Brexiteers and Bremainers claiming that security would be compromised if the other side won. Is Brexit likely to end border controls at Calais under the Le Touquet Treaty and weaken intelligence sharing with European partners? Or is continuing freedom of movement likely to enhance the risks to Britain’s security, despite the UK retaining border controls, as the likes of Iain Duncan Smith have consistently claimed? Leaving aside Wood and Hordósy’s argument that mundane regulation (something the EU bureaucracy excels at) does more for Europeans’ safety than anything else, the fact remains that existing threats will not decrease if the UK pulled out of the EU altogether. But with even the EU’s border agency FRONTEX warning that terrorists could use migration routes to make it into Europe, the stakes in the debate are rising.

Undeniably, in any case, the domestic debate on Britain’s EU membership also reflects a growing distrust of the forces of globalisation, and the havoc they wreak on the traditional understanding of national sovereignty. Globalisation challenges states with the inescapable fact that they are now economically, legally and politically interlinked. Political authority, in other words the state’s sovereignty, is thus to varying degrees circumscribed, and the loss of control – of borders, legislative processes, or juridical supremacy – becomes synonymous with a loss of sovereignty. Nowhere is this becoming more glaringly evident than with potentially unlimited migration.

In lieu of a conclusion

Europe is not in the best place right now. Neither is, arguably, the United Kingdom. As the day of the referendum draws closer, the campaigns will heat up. Hypotheticals aside, we can be relatively sure that the topic of migration will be right at the heart of the debate. Bluffs will be called, deals deconstructed, claims critiqued. At this point, positive numeric data are unlikely to sway the voter for whom the scale of immigration, and the angst that creates, are the central concerns. At best they will give that coveted constituency, the all-important undecided voter, some food for thought.

What is likely to matter much more are those external events that reinforce the most deep-rooted misgivings and anxieties on all sides. Right in the midst of all this volatility, the EU-Turkey deal is likely to fail at stemming, let alone in a humane and legally impeccable manner, the influx of desperate people trying to reach Europe. If anything, it will succeed in showing just how far the EU, pushed by its member states, is willing to go to address the crisis. This is what makes the refugee crisis the wild card in the Brexit campaigns. How voters are likely to balance out the perceived risks to economic prosperity if Britain left and the perceived risks if we stayed is not therefore a foregone conclusion.


Dr Uta Staiger is the Deputy Director of the UCL European Institute.


This piece is co-published with openDemocracy.


Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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