Christopher Howarth is a senior researcher working in the House of Commons. Prior to this he worked for Open Europe, as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
The UK has, by accident or design, followed a policy of economic growth driven by migration-fuelled population growth. EU free movement supplemented by a taxpayer subsidy for employers to take on low paid workers – in-work benefits – has been a dominant feature of our economy for the last 15 years.
So all established companies that have a secure market benefit from a growing economy, while those who find it easier to import skills rather than invest in domestic skills or automation get a double benefit. Whether individual domestic workers and taxpayers have benefited is another question.
It should therefore be no surprise that organisations who represent these companies – the CBI, the IoD and so on – are now in panic mode at the prospect of the withdrawal of their cheap labour drug. These addicts are playing for time, clinging to an EU free movement “transition” as a heroin addict clings to methadone. But their shrill cravings should be resisted. There is no bad time to reduce immigration. Just as there is no bad time to leave the EU.
So what might be being considered?
The papers have recently been full of stories about transitional measures to allow for the continuance of EU free movement post Brexit. The Guardian claimed last week that “Free movement may go on until 2023” while the Times claimed on the same day that “borders will remain open for two years after Brexit” (i.e: 2021).
As this site pointed out on Saturday, no agreement within Cabinet has been reached. And from these stories, it is unclear exactly what is being discussed. There are, as always with Brexit, a number of options.
a) Full EU reciprocal free movement continues as a legal obligation
This would entail the Article 50 EU/UK agreement subjecting the UK to a legal obligation to continue the status quo of free movement for either two years post-Brexit (as suggested by Michael Gove) or for years according to that Guardian story. This could be on the same basis as now, with all the ECJ case law imperfections regarding criminal records, dependants and welfare.
b) The UK decides a new sector-specific domestic policy
When the UK leaves the EU in 2019, it will be free to set up its own immigration system. The UK could expand its existing scheme of work permits for non EU state,s but supplement it with a special temporary scheme for EU workers. This could include a targeting of particular industry sectors that are the most unprepared for a reduction in migration, as well as sectors such as seasonal agricultural workers, for which there was a scheme predating the UK’s EU membership.
c) Will the EU citizens who arrive in a “transition” period gain permanent rights to stay?
In its ‘offer’ to the EU regarding EU citizens, the Government has proposed a date of somewhere between March 2017 and March 2019 as a cut-off date on which to give EU citizens already in the UK permanent rights. Those with five years residency would get automatic leave to stay, while those with less than 5 years would be allowed to stay to gain the additional years. If the UK decided to keep free movement for an extended period, would it also extend the cut-off dates?
Implementing or transitioning to what exactly?
You may ask why the Cabinet is discussing a “transition” before it has agreed what we are transitioning to? We do not know yet what, if any, agreements will be agreed with the EU regarding trade and withdrawal. It is therefore impossible to agree any “transitional” agreement with the EU at this point.
This leads to the conclusion that what is being discussed internally is simply keeping our present immigration policy after we leave the EU. So is the Cabinet negotiating with itself a UK policy based on keeping EU free movement for a period, in order to assuage the UK business lobby? If it has, both sides have missed a wider point.
What the Government needs to do now is give a clear sense of direction. There is cross-party agreement that free movement within the context of EU membership should end. There is no question of staying within the jurisdiction of what would be a foreign court. UK business will need to adapt – so they should start now and put their effort into Government policy towards domestic skills and investment rather than delaying the inevitable. Michael Forsyth, who chairs a Lords Committee looking into this issue, has summed the situation up well:
“Some firms will need to raise wages to attract domestic workers. In other sectors, where migrant workers may not easily be replaced by domestic workers, firms will need to change their business models or increase capital investment in automated processes.”
None of this is the end of the world; quite the opposite. The Remain campaign’s Project Fear was ludicrously based on the alarm (for big businesses) that labour costs – wages to you and me – would rise. That is not a bad thing. Nor is investment in automation and rising competitiveness.
We have two years to implement a domestic tailored immigration policy that benefits UK Citizens; two years to put in place the necessary administrative measures. Business and government should not waste time asking for extensions and complaining the task is too big for them – but get on with it now.