February 2, 2016
Given the media attention to David Cameron’s dealings with the EU, it might seem surprising that a recent Economist/Ipsos MORI poll on issues facing Britain does not put the EU in the top 10 concerns. The poll asked ‘what do you see as the most important/other important issues facing Britain today?’. ‘Immigration/immigrants’ was close to the top, at 40%. The ‘common market/EU/Europe/Euro’ came in at number 17, with 5%. The percentages are explained in documents available from Ipsos MORI.
Although the EU appears to be relatively unimportant to the British public according to the poll, this result is likely to be misleading. The concerns are not all independent of each other but are entangled in various ways. For example, UKIP (the UK Independence Party) and other Eurosceptic groups have stated that Britain does not have control of its borders and therefore uncontrolled immigration is a problem. Unsurprisingly, this has raised public concerns about immigration and the EU. The concerns are further aggravated when fears of terrorism are linked to immigration as a source of terrorists. And immigration becomes entangled with concerns about the NHS (National Health Service) as more people compete for the resources.
I’d like to try to unravel the tangled state of the concerns about immigration, in the context of Britain’s membership of the EU. The impending EU referendum, which may be as early as June 2016, will only raise the level of noise and confusion about Britain’s role in the EU, so it’s a good time to throw some light on the subject. The sources I’ve used are at the end of the text.
There are several different groups of people moving around in Europe, entering or trying to enter Britain with a view to staying there for an extended period. They include:
- Citizens of EU and EEA countries, moving within the Freedom of Movement rules;
- People from outside the EU but arriving within immigration rules, e.g. applying for visas;
- Refugees fleeing persecution or war, of which the current conflict in Syria is by far the biggest but not the only cause; and
- Other migrants desperately seeking a better life in Europe, or specifically in Britain. They are not fleeing a conflict but may be subject to corrupt and incompetent governments at home, or natural disasters, leading to economic hardship.
Groups 3 and 4 do not conform to immigration rules, either because they choose not to or, more commonly, the people concerned are in no position to follow any procedures. They arrive chaotically, often the victims of gross exploitation by people smugglers. As a result, their journeys are very risky, frequently life-threatening.
How does Britain’s membership of the EU affect immigration: has Britain in fact lost control of its borders, as has been claimed? The only group over which Britain has no control contains EU citizens arriving within the rules of Free Movement. The other groups are all subject to immigration controls. Britain is not part of the Schengen agreement so it has border checkpoints, which are assisted by the fact that there is only one land border with another EU country. It’s relatively hard to get in. Most arrivals come by sea, train or air and are greeted by immigration officers. This is generally done on arrival in Britain but some checkpoints are at the point of departure, for instance Calais. Illegal arrivals can be detained and possibly deported. Legal arrivals from outside the EU but overstaying their welcome can also be detained and deported. An example could be someone who claims to be on holiday but then takes a job.
The notion that immigrants are a net cost is central to the concerns; they take out more than they put in, it is claimed. Indeed, an important component of the government’s current renegotiation effort is that immigrants should not be entitled to claim in-work benefits for up to four years. However, the evidence of research by Dustmann & Frattini shows that immigrants’ net contribution in the period 2000 to 2011 is positive, especially for those from the EU Accession countries (Poland, Hungary etc.).
These findings contradict the view that immigrants are a drain on resources, and undermine the point of denying immigrants access to in-work benefits for 4 years; that’s not why they come to the UK. Dustmann & Frattini do not address the possible effects of immigrants on the labour market by lowering wages for natives. However, it is against the law to pay less than the minimum wage. There is also anecdotal evidence that British natives do not want to do jobs such as seasonal agricultural work, so immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe, are filling the gap.
What if Britain left the EU? Since Britain is currently in the EU, it is possible to get the facts straight about remaining in it. Leaving the EU would put Britain into an unknown state, so questions about immigration and so on are to some extent speculation. The Eurosceptic position seems to assume the worst outcome from staying in and the best from being outside. Experience before Britain entered the then EEC is so long ago – accession was on the 1st January 1973 – that it is no longer relevant.
Britain would be able to control the flow of EU citizens as Freedom of Movement would no longer apply. However, Britain would seek to negotiate a free trade arrangement with the EU. The conditions could include some free movement of people, as is the case with Norway. Britain would not have any say in making the rules but would have to abide by them. The alternative is to attempt a series of bilateral agreements with member countries, as Switzerland has done. That would be time consuming and difficult.
There is also the fact that a large number of British citizens live elsewhere in the EU, perhaps as many as 1.8 million, of whom a large proportion is in Spain. These people are entitled to claim benefits under reciprocal agreements, which would be jeopardised if Britain left the EU. This could affect lots of retirees, especially in Spain, who are likely to have increasing health care requirements. At the very least, there would be complicated negotiations to sort it all out.
The recent arrivals from Syria and other places are a wider European problem, and should not be confused with EU citizens or other would-be immigrants applying through legally-approved channels. Those who attempt to enter Britain illegally already face checks. It is not clear how leaving the EU would stop some of them from wanting to get in (though in fact, the majority want to go to Germany or Sweden). And the current problems of managing the migrants in Calais could well be exported to Dover if France decided to let them cross the channel. Such a move by France is possible, even likely, if Britain left the EU.
In reporting David Cameron’s dealings with the EU and the consequences of Brexit, the media should help UK citizens to untangle fact from conjecture, but I fear that, too often, the reverse will be true.
Notes and sources
 The Economist/Ipsos MORI poll of issues facing Britain, December 2015. The results can be found at:
https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3673/EconomistIpsos-MORI-December-2015-Issues-Index.aspx. The figures include the most important and other important issues, not just the most important.
 In-work benefits are payments to supplement the income of people who are working. Housing is a particular example as rents and house prices are very high, especially in London and the South East.
 Dustmann & Frattini published a detailed analysis of the fiscal impact of immigrants into the UK. The link below points to a UCL site containing highlights and a short video presentation of their findings: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1114/051114-economic-impact-EU-immigration . The full paper can be obtained at www.cream-migration.org/files/FiscalEJ.pdf .
 The business and trade implications of the EU are exhaustively covered by the CBI in ‘Choosing Our Future’, October 2015. See http://news.cbi.org.uk/business-issues/uk-and-the-european-union/choosing-our-future/
 See, for example, this piece in the FT: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5cd640f6-9025-11e3-a776-00144feab7de.html#axzz3yYiz5Y5b . There are many other sources of information.pbye