What are Britain's post-Brexit migration options?


Picture of Sunder Katwala
Sunder Katwala

The alternatives to freedom of movement

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union will mark a ‘reset’ moment for immigration policy.

In her major Brexit speech at Lancaster House in January, British Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to prioritise immigration control in any deal she strikes with the EU. This ended speculation that free movement may continue in some form, and closed the door on continued membership of the single market.

But while control over immigration will be one of May’s ‘red lines’ in the negotiations, she has also said that she wants to get the best possible deal for the economy, which means maximising access to European markets.

So while Britain’s policy on EU migration looks certain to change, a constructive new deal with the EU, covering both trade and immigration, has not been ruled out. From a British perspective the deal must work in the interests of our politics as well as our economy, and remain attractive to our negotiating partners.

The British public has lost confidence in how governments have managed immigration. Successive governments failed to predict, prepare or plan for the largest migration wave in British history, after the EU expanded eastwards in 2004. They then broke, and broke again, a pledge to cut the net migration numbers dramatically.

Most people, however, are clear that they blame the politicians, not the migrants themselves. British Future’s post-referendum research shows that the public combines scepticism about the current system with moderate, nuanced views on the right migration policy to replace it after Brexit.

Most people, however, are clear that they blame the politicians, not the migrants themselves

Two-thirds of those surveyed would like fewer unskilled workers in future, but only one-in-four would cut the number of those who come to work in care homes. Only a fifth of people want to cut skilled or student migration – rather more people would prefer the numbers of migrant nurses, doctors and scientists to increase. 84% believe European nationals currently living in Britain must be told they remain welcome in the UK.

There is no public support for an indiscriminate anti-immigration crackdown. Broad majorities are open to arguments about how both to manage the pressures and secure the gains of immigration.

Three-quarters of people – including a striking 80% of Leave and Ukip voters – now see Brexit as offering an opportunity to get the balance right: to have more choice and control over who comes to Britain while keeping the immigration that is good for our economy and society, and maintaining our tradition of offering sanctuary to refugees.

These attitudes present an opportunity for a deal based on pragmatic consensus, even on this most noisily polarised of all public policy issues. Seizing this opportunity would help to rebuild public confidence that immigration and integration make a positive contribution to Britain.

That chance will be lost if the Article 50 negotiating clock were to run out with no agreement. In that scenario the UK would logically fall back on treating EU and non-EU migration similarly. This would probably lead to loosening the current non-EU regime to secure the inflow of migrant skills the economy needs. This would be a political failure, not just for Theresa May but for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders too.

However, this is not the only alternative to full freedom of movement.

A new UK immigration system for EEA nationals – offering preferential European access to the UK labour market as part of a UK deal on trade with the EU – would be a constructive offer as the UK seeks to negotiate a positive post-EU partnership.

A new UK immigration system for EEA nationals would be a constructive offer

A version of free movement could continue, reciprocally, for those with a job above a particular salary or qualification threshold. This would be supplemented by quotas for low-skilled migration, set annually by Parliament after public hearings with employers and local communities. This kind of solution would offer the UK control over the immigration that voters care most about.

The first option to fill the low-skilled migrant quotas would be to make a preferential offer to Britain’s trade partners. While this model could work for future UK trade negotiations with countries like Australia, India and Canada, it would make sense to offer such a preferential trade and migration deal to our European neighbours first.

Such a proposal could secure broad political and public support in Britain. It would bring unskilled migration under UK’s own control while still accepting, under the new rules, some of the low-skilled workers from Europe that businesses need.

It would reflect popular support for skilled and student migration and move us away from a net migration target that has only served to undermine public confidence in the immigration system. It could help to rebuild that trust, showing how a controlled migration policy could keep Britain open to the skills that we need and want.

This is obviously not freedom of movement as it stands, so it would not secure unaltered single market access for the UK. But it would give the EU-27 considerably more access to the UK labour market than if the negotiations were to end in failure.

And, importantly, it would be a positive, constructive offer to put on the negotiating table when the UK sits down with the EU to thrash out a deal.

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