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James Cartlidge is MP for South Suffolk.

If there is one Brexit issue that dominated the pre-referendum debate but which has been notably absent since, it is surely immigration. Compared to the “divorce bill”, which was scarcely debated at all in the build up to the vote, we have arguably had close to political silence on the matter which did so much to take the Vote Leave campaign over the winning line. In my view, there are four key questions to ask if we are to consider post-Brexit immigration possibilities in the cold light of day.

First, will we allow ‘unskilled’ migration after we leave? When I raised this point during the recent EEA back-bench business debate, Edward Leigh intervened to suggest it was absurd to argue that those who supported Brexit were calling for an immediate end to unskilled migration. In fact, writing for ‘Leave means Leave’, Steven Woolfe has called for a five year moratorium on unskilled migration when we exit the EU; MigrationWatch has made similar arguments.

In reality, the Government has accepted that unskilled EU migration will continue after we leave, given that even with free movement we have shortages from care homes to construction that cannot be ignored. Part of the problem is that ‘unskilled’ does not necessarily mean ‘menial’ when it comes to immigration – it just means the applicant would not get in as a non-EU migrant under very strict ‘highly skilled’ visa rules. I have one successful local manufacturing business looking to export to non-EU markets but for which the biggest issue is finding the skills. It relies on EEA nationals in roles requiring hard to find ‘skills’ and yet it is unlikely their roles would be defined as ‘highly skilled’: in short, those integral staff would not be able to come to the country if we banned ‘unskilled’ EU migration.

The second question is by far the most important, and I have raised it before on this site.  When we leave, will we continue to ban unskilled labour from outside the EU? Tier 3, entitling non-EU nationals to work here on an unskilled basis, has never been used, because successive Governments have felt that we get sufficient such labour from within the EU. Some Brexiteers have argued that this is unfair and ‘discriminates’ against non-EU nationals, suggesting that we should have one single ‘unified’ system. I’ve even heard expert legal opinion question whether we could legally discriminate on this basis if we did not have the justification of being in the EEA or EU.

In my view, if we accept that unskilled immigration will continue post-Brexit, we would be asking for a serious backlash from the electorate if we were to open up the unskilled migration route to non-EU nationals. It matters not that regaining sovereignty in this area would give us ‘control’, whereby (at great expense and with a huge bureaucracy) we could set rules on EU migrants as we currently do for non-EU (though non-EU currently make up the larger part of net migration figures). The fact is that the immigration debate is about numbers. It is surely mathematically impossible for non-EU migration to do anything other than rise if we add the unskilled channel, regardless of what visa system is put in place. Those voting leave on immigration grounds did not do so to vote to create a see-saw with EU immigration at one end and non-EU at the other. But they probably don’t appreciate that so called ‘unrestricted’ free movement restricts unskilled migration to a population of 750 million in Europe rather than the 7.5 billion global populous.

The third question is whether the public would be particularly bothered about restricting the free movement into this country of western European nationals – French, Germans etc. This is not a racist ‘anti-East European’ point but, rather, reflects the fact that the greatest change of recent years concerned communities seeing a surge in immigration from poorer European nations, with all the potential impact on local wages and – due to the sheer scale – public services and housing demand.

The fourth question is whether we would be happy to be subject to visa restriction ourselves when travelling within the EU. Those who rarely travel would presumably be less bothered, but for those regularly visiting the likes of France and Italy for business or pleasure, such an arrangement could be cumbersome. For young people suddenly finding that they have to have a visa to study or work on the continent, it might be somewhat more than that, especially given their likely view of the whole overall matter of Brexit.

I may be wrong but I suspect the answers to the four questions are as follows.

First, we will need unskilled migrants at scale for some time to come, and have little choice in the matter (though with sensible investment in education and technology, and as local wages inevitably lift, we could gradually transition away from this dependence).

Second, the wider public would not support opening unskilled migration to non-EU migrants (not out of prejudice, but because that is not remotely consistent with controlling numbers).

Third and fourth, the public would be relaxed about free movement continuing for wealthier EU nations, and would much prefer not to be subject to new visa restrictions themselves when travelling on the continent.

If my hunches are correct, and I am sure many would argue otherwise, it suggests that a variation on free movement would potentially be palatable to the British people. That is, some system like Lichtenstein has within EFTA, in which it is able to apply an emergency break to inter-EEA migration. This is applied through Article 112 of the “safeguard measures” whereby if serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature arise, it allows EFTA states (but not EU Member States) unilaterally to take appropriate measures to resolve them. EU Member States have to rely on the Commission to take action.

At the moment, the signs are that EU migration to the UK is falling, almost certainly because of the weakening pound in contrast with a strengthening Eurozone. It reminds us that the system we have for regulating EU migration is that rather unfashionable concept called ‘the free market’. But if our economy starts firing on all cylinders again in years ahead, and numbers were to spike upwards from within the EU, with this type of modified free movement we could then apply the break, perhaps on a country by country basis to avoid us being subject to retaliation when travelling to those nations closest to our shores.

Of course, such a possibility would require us becoming a member of EFTA. I sincerely hope that we are able to achieve the very best Brexit outcome, which is a bespoke comprehensive trade deal with the EU, covering services. But just as some are advocating we prepare for ‘no deal’ by falling back on WTO rules, there are others who wonder if a less risky Plan B might be to re-join EFTA. If immigration is more controlled within the EEA (via EFTA) than first thought, given we are out of CAP, CFP and direct ECJ jurisdiction, able to negotiate our own trade deals (and be a party to EFTA’s), and still in the Single Market, it might not be such a bad outcome after all, not least for a transitional deal.

203 comments for: James Cartlidge: We should consider joining EFTA – which would give us the brake on unskilled EU migration that we may need

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