Lord Green is Chairman of MigrationWatch UK and a cross-bench peer.
A chorus has developed in recent weeks in favour of a “Norway-based” alternative to the Brexit negotiations which seem to have become heavily bogged down.
Nick Boles, with the support of Nicky Morgan and the cautious backing of William Hague, favours “Norway for Now”, under which membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) would be temporary while something better was negotiated. Frank Field has made a similar suggestion. Others favour “Norway forever”, which would mean permanent membership of the EEA.
Both these groups seek to skate over a vital weakness in their proposals – namely, the absence of any effective means of controlling continued immigration from the EU. This is an issue that has certainly not gone away. EU net migration peaked at 190,000 in the year leading up to the referendum. It has since declined to about 90,000 per year – mostly, it is thought, due to uncertainty over the implementation of Brexit. Nevertheless, its scale and perhaps above all, the fact that we have absolutely no control of it make it a continuing major concern for the public.
Some are suggesting that immigration was not, in fact, a key factor in the outcome of the referendum. They point to opinion polls that show that public concern about immigration has declined. Matthew Goodwin of the University of Kent, among others, has disputed this, but, even if it is true, it may well be because the public assume that Brexit will sort it – a view reinforced by the fact that net migration from the EU has fallen since the referendum.
None the less, a NatCen poll in March 2017 found that 68 per cent of the public supported ending free movement. Furthermore, a June 2018 Deltapoll found that 73 per cent of voters support the government’s promise to dramatically reduce overall immigration levels.
Meanwhile, there are those in the Remain camp, such as George Trefgarne in his recent article for this site, who claim that there are legal avenues by which the UK could limit freedom of movement whilst still a member of the EEA. This is deeply misleading.
As we point out in a new Migration Watch paper, published today, there are indeed mechanisms for mitigating damaging migration flows, but they are tightly constrained. In exceptional circumstances they could be proposed to the EEA Joint Committee, but they would be restricted in scope and would be reviewed every three months by the committee, with the aim of limiting them as far as possible. Control would be out of our hands. Implementing any restrictions, even if the joint Committee acquiesced, would risk retaliation. This is one of the reasons given by Norwegian officials to explain why they have never called for safeguards. It follows that the much-vaunted “emergency brake” would have no useful effect.
Others have pointed to Belgium, claiming that it has succeeded in implementing EU law more effectively than ourselves by expelling EU citizens who have remained in Belgium beyond the three months allowed by treaty rights to those who are not working. However, in recent years only about 2,200 such eviction notices have been issued annually, and there is no information as to how many actually left Belgium.
As for the UK, very few EU citizens are unemployed. Only about 11,000 (out of a total population of nearly four million) have been unemployed for more than a year and many of these will have the right of residence here due to family membership. So the number who might be expelled on the basis of the Belgian model is likely to be insignificant – perhaps only be a few thousand. There would also, of course, be practical difficulties in locating and removing them, so any such system would be a very long way from serious control of our borders.
As for Lichtenstein which is sometimes quoted as an example, this is clutching at straws. They do indeed have special arrangements – but with a population of just under 40,000 their situation is hardly comparable to that of the UK.
In the end, the EEA option may not exist since both Norway and Iceland, two of three non-EU members of the EEA, have made it clear that they would be averse to UK membership. Nevertheless, if it were to be pursued, it would mean abandoning any prospect of reducing a continuing and unconstrained inflow of migrants from the EU – an outcome that would be deeply unpopular with the public.