Reflections on the EU Referendum Campaign: the Immigration Issue

Looking back over previous posts on this site today, I was struck by my 31 August 2015 post ‘Will Immigration Concerns Lead to Brexit?’.  As I predicted in that post, immigration has indeed become the number one issue of the Leave side in the UK’s EU Referendum campaign.  I certainly hope that the Remain side will prevail with their arguments based on the damage Brexit would undoubtedly do to the economy, but if the Leave side wins it will be down to concerns about immigration.

Immigration is a difficult issue for the Remain side to deal with.  I recall that before the Eastern European countries entered the EU in 2004, partly due to lobbying by the UK, there was little migration between EU member states, apart from senior executives and retirees.  If anything, I can recall discussions before 2004 about why Europeans did not move about more, in the way that Americans have always been prepared to up sticks and move from one State to another.

With hindsight, it is clear that the admission of new EU member states with average income levels well below those of the original members would inevitably result in more migration for the purpose of seeking work.  That, combined with the increasing strength of the UK economy since it recovered from the financial crisis, has resulted in more and more nationals of other EU states exercising their ‘free movement’ rights to move to the UK.

The Pros and Cons of the ‘Free Movement’ Principle

I consider that migration to the UK from other EU member states has brought significant benefits to the UK, not least by enabling us to hire enough people to staff the NHS.   Also, huge numbers of British people have used their own free movement rights to study, work and retire in other EU states.  However, many British people disagree with free movement, and I can understand why they do, from their viewpoint.  A large proportion of the British public is convinced that the country is physically bursting at the seams, and that health and education services in areas of high migration are struggling.  They also believe the housing shortage is due to migrants instead of a failure over many years to build new houses.  The UK government has simply failed to take the necessary steps to boost services in areas of high migration, or to enable sufficient housebuilding.  It is no wonder many people feel there is pressure on services and housing.

Boris Johnson recently said the UK’s population might rise to 80 million (from 65 at present).  My first reaction was “Goody, goody: the UK will be the most populous country in the EU!”  But this is an absolute horror story to many people in the UK.  It seems that in Germany they are prepared to build more houses and provide more doctors, nurses, teachers etc in areas where the immigrants arrive, but not in the UK. Also note that the population density of Germany is only a little less than that of the UK – 225 people per square kilometre in Germany compared with 255 per square kilometre in the UK.  It is not that we lack space in the UK – it is more a matter of perception that we lack space (not least because we are an island), combined with the government’s failure to invest in sufficient services and to enable housebuilding.

It also remains the case that nationals of EU countries continue to identify primarily with their own country.  Free movement works in the US where the population has always identified as much with the union as with the individual states (if not more so).  It is much more difficult to persuade the population of an EU state to accept it, particularly at times when economic growth makes one EU state more attractive than many others.
If the UK does vote to remain in the EU, I hope that more thought will be given to the problems posed by free movement in the EU context.  While I accept that it is one of the fundamental aspects of the EU, I suspect that the founding members of the EU never imagined that free movement would occur on its present scale.
Michael Ingle –

Categories: EU, Politics, Uncategorized

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