Just as suggestions surface that she may be prone to Macavity-like behaviour when there is bad news about, the Home Secretary writes in the Sunday Times about the failure, yet again, to come anywhere close to getting net immigration down to “tens of thousands”.
I’ve now lost count of the number of times I’ve reiterated the essential problems with that doomed target, namely: 1) it fails to measure what actually concerns voters, 2) one half of it (immigration) is uncontrollable while we remain a member of the EU, 3) the other half of it (emigration) is uncontrollable unless we become North Korea, and 4) it was always going to be in conflict with a simultaneous plan to rebuild the economy. A few of the instances can be found here, here, here and here.
May’s article is an attempt to get on top of the problem – or at least to be seen to be trying to do something - but there are a number of factors which guarantee that there is more political pain still to come:
- The two immigration issues the nation faces are distinct but are constantly elided. The summer’s headlines have been dominated by illegal immigration – the people risking and often losing their lives crossing the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats, hiding in lorries and in many cases trying to find a way into Britain through Calais. The failure to hit the net migration target, by contrast, refers to legal migrants (though there is some crossover in that it also includes asylum seekers, who make up some but not all of those crossing the Channel). The Home Secretary could completely solve one issue without making a dent in the other.
- On both topics, our relationship with the EU is relevant, but for different reasons. As stated above, it is impossible to control legal immigration while remaining a member of the EU – free movement by definition means that the figures are out of the Government’s control. The fact that our economy is growing and the Eurozone still faces huge problems simply establishes pull-factors which highlight that fact. May is right to argue that Schengen also adds a pull-factor for illegal immigration, but that only gets illegal migrants as far as the Channel as the UK is not a Schengen member.
- Quite how May’s proposal would work in practice is not clear. The headline idea is that movement should only be free for those who are coming for a specific job. However, the Sunday Times‘ accompanying news story touches on the technical, legal and logistical difficulties. That the newspaper does not appear to have been briefed on a specific plan is a troubling sign of the complexities involved – at least while we remain in the EU.
- It certainly would not address the ‘brain drain’ which she laments in her article. The impact of losing nurses, doctors and other skilled workers might well be severe on countries like Portugal, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria – but these are exactly the kind of migrants who a) British voters have fewer concerns about and b) would find it easiest to move countries to access a pre-agreed job.
- Renegotiating any of this with other EU members is likely to prove as difficult as renegotiating anything else – or perhaps more so. The renegotiation isn’t going well, particularly as the EU is designed only to swallow new powers, not to give any back. But the question of immigration is particularly vexed. It is unlikely that Schengen members will be willing to heed a lecture from a non-member, no matter how correct the argument may be. Further, Germany will have little sympathy for Britain on the question of asylum seekers, as they already take far more than us. Yet more mantraps lie await in the question of how to change free movement of people into free movement of workers – Eastern European nations are not hugely keen to be seen to agree restrictions on their citizens’ opportunities. Even if the plan was clear, it would face sizeable hurdles.
- Even if we left the EU, we would still have a border vulnerable to illegal immigration. Schengen might help the desperate inhabitants of ‘the jungle’ at Calais get that far, but there is no EU policy which makes it possible for them to sneak aboard lorries heading to Britain, or to get through the flimsy fencing around the Channel tunnel, or to enter the networks run by exploitative people smugglers. Those are problems of the British Government and the British Government alone. That is an issue for May and for the Prime Minister.
- Leaving the EU is not in itself a guarantee of an end to free movement. It’s worth noting that the EFTA members, whose experiences demonstrate the potential for a thriving life outside the costly and undemocratic control of Brussels, all have free movement agreements with the EU. Switzerland is in the process of renegotiating that deal, following their referendum, but a new arrangement is yet to be established. Brexit would undoubtedly give us back democratic control of our borders – but it isn’t inevitable that Parliament would then opt for the strict controls some seem to imagine are inevitable.
- Finally, Farage is about to make things worse. This week he will deliver a speech which is generally expected to express his entirely predictable view that immigration should be the central pillar of the No campaign for the EU referendum. If he really believes that, then he hasn’t studied the political landscape closely enough - the topic certainly motivates nailed-on No voters, but it has far less potential to win over the less convinced if naturally eurosceptic waverers. It may be, of course, that he simply wants to win more votes for his party even if it harms the No campaign in doing so – it would be a dereliction of his duty to his country, but he has certainly pursued that strategy in the past. Either way, the Purple Peril is set to turn up the dial on an issue which is already hurting the Government, and there are several more degrees of pain to go before it is maxed out.