Will Immigration Concerns Lead to Brexit?

Pre-EU Referendum polls show a continuing (and even increasing) lead for the ‘Yes’ campaign for Britain to stay in the EU.  However, I am concerned that the constant focus on immigration issues in the UK could overturn this lead by the time of the Referendum, resulting in a ‘No’ vote.

Many Britons have long been concerned about immigration, believing that it puts undue pressure on public services and reduces job opportunities for low-skilled workers already in the UK.  I have always believed that immigration is a net gain for the country, but I have to accept that many people disagree with me.  A recent poll showed that immigration is considered by UK residents to be our ‘number one problem’.

A combination of issues is making immigration the key issue in the EU Referendum campaign

Unfortunately we are now living through a combination of circumstances that will ensure immigration remains in the headlines for the foreseeable future, up to the likely time of the EU Referendum in late 2016 and beyond:

  • Government figures for net migration to the UK are published every three months.  The annual net migration figure keeps increasing (the latest figure was 318,000), but even if it declined it would remain far above the government’s ‘target’ of ‘tens of thousands’.  Every time the figures are published, they result in howls of protest, which confirm the views of many that the country is being ‘swamped’ by migrants.
  • Ongoing stories of disruption caused by intending migrants camping around Calais, allied to the genuine problems experienced by travellers across the Channel, suggest that we are virtually ‘besieged’ by migrants.
  • The increasing numbers of migrants from Africa and the Middle East seeking to reach Europe across the Mediterranean, with many dying in the process, suggest that immigration is completely out of control at the European level.

Meanwhile, both national and EU politicians display a continuing inability to get to grip with the rapidly deteriorating migrant crisis.  An EU meeting of Ministers from Member States will take place in two weeks’ time and will hopefully lead to a co-ordinated approach to the problem.  This will likely involve centralised processing of intending migrants in the countries where they arrive, coupled with the sharing out of genuine refugees between all Member States.  But it will take months to implement and will be accompanied by horrendous political arguments that will be covered avidly by the press.

Any reasonable solution to the current migrant crisis is likely to cause further upset in the UK, however.  Many British people, while not xenophobic (for the most part), feel that our island location and sheer distance from the source of the ‘problem’, should exempt us from having to accept any of the migrants who arrive in mainland Europe.  They are also convinced that the UK is ‘full up’ physically, and unable to accommodate any more people.  Why should we be concerned about people who land up on the beaches of Italy or Greece?  The UK already has an opt-out from EU rules that require some sharing out of refugees between Member States.  I cannot imagine this opt-out surviving the forthcoming talks to co-ordinate migrant policy.  The UK will have no choice but to accept a larger share of genuine refugees than it is currently doing.  That is certain however to inflame the already febrile anti-immigration atmosphere in the UK.  Many people in the UK will conclude that the country has a natural advantage in its island location and simply has to leave the EU to ‘solve’ the immigration problem at a stroke.

Nigel Farage has said that immigration should be the main issue for the ‘No’ side in the EU Referendum campaign.  I expect he will get his way on this, as it will definitely be the best way for the’No’ side to win the Referendum.  The more emphasis there is on ‘out of control’ immigration, the easier it will be to deflect voters’ minds from the negative economic and social effects Brexit would have.  The fact that Britons would no longer be able to study, work or retire elsewhere in the EU after Brexit would barely register with a public determined to bring immigration under control.

The ‘Yes’ campaign will therefore have to devise a strategy for responding to a ‘No’ campaign founded on the negative effects (whether real or imagined) of immigration.  It will not be enough for the ‘Yes’ campaign to focus on statistics and studies that suggest Brexit would be an economic disaster, or that immigration is on balance a net gain for the UK because migrants pay more taxes and claim fewer benefits than locals.  Newspapers clamouring for us to leave the EU will simply say all of this is untrue and they will be believed.  It is not difficult to trash statistics and academic studies.

How to counter the ‘No’ side’s arguments that immigration must be ‘brought under control’

For the ‘Yes’ campaign to win, it will have to provide an emotionally convincing alternative to the narrative that immigration is altogether a bad thing. A key element should be the need to show solidarity with our fellow Europeans.  After all, our failure to do so during the 1930s (when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described German aggression against Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”) did not prevent the UK being swept into WWII.  Another element should be the fact that immigrants have contributed hugely to the UK’s present prosperity, while just as many UK nationals have moved to other EU countries as have come to the UK.  These arguments will not be enough, however, and I can only hope that the ‘Yes’ campaign is able to select a leader who can put the pro-European case in a fundamentally positive way.  By all means point out the certain damage to the economy that Brexit would cause, but focus on the positive advantages EU membership provides to the British people.

Michael Ingle

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Categories: Economics, EU, Politics

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