I often have to remind people that voting to leave the EU was a decision to take back democratic control of important powers, not a decision on how those powers should be used. In other words, it was the start of democratic debate and disagreement on all sorts of things – farming, fisheries, trade, regulation, border control – rather than a resolution to them. That’s how people of hugely different politics were able to come together in voting Leave: we were opting for the right to make our competing cases for ever more.
That’s often forgotten, or deliberately ignored for self-interested reasons, and needs repeating whenever the question of how newly regained powers ought to be used. Today the topic under dispute is immigration policy. The Migration Advisory Committee has been doing some advising on migration, as is its wont, and this time is exploring the soon-to-be opened up topic of post-Brexit immigration policy relating to the citizens of EU countries.
The MAC’s starting premise, that there ought to be equal rules for EU and non-EU migrants, is a fair one. After years of dishing out arbitrarily harsh treatment for non-EU migrants, in a desperate and unwise effort to deter them enough to balance out the influx resulting from free movement, establishing equality as the basic arrangement is long overdue.
We should be careful not to misinterpret that, however. It doesn’t mean that there can never be any relaxation of immigration rules or expansion of visa numbers to people coming from the EU, just that the default arrangement should be the same as for non-EU citizens. It’s a fact that improved migration access is often a feature of modern trade deals; though unrestrained free movement is a bizarre internal fetish of the EU in particular (and wouldn’t be politically acceptable even if it did change its policy and try to seek it with a non-member), it’s not unusual for countries working together to negotiate some kind of more modest expansion or relaxation of travel and work alongside the lowering of trade barriers.
Post-Brexit Britain might well consider such terms in future trade negotiations with other countries. Ending the forced repatriation of young people between Australia and the UK after two years, for example, or expanding the number of visas for highly-skilled tech workers from India. Such clauses can bring benefits in themselves, and can help to smooth the liberalisation of trade at the same time. If we might be open to striking such agreements with Australia, India or Brazil in return for a wide-ranging free trade agreement, then we should also be open to discussing such terms with the EU in return for such a deal, too. (To emphasise: not as part of a withdrawal agreement, but as part of a free trade agreement.)
That, after all, would be part of introducing equal treatment for EU and non-EU countries after Brexit. We won’t be a member of the EU any longer, so we will regain control of our own laws and borders, and we will be forging a new, outward-looking future for ourselves. What the most obsessive Remainers sometimes forget is that that doesn’t mean trading with other countries instead of with the EU, it means trading with other countries as well as with the EU.
By the same token, some among my fellow Leavers are at times prone to make the same error – ending free movement and taking back control of our borders does not mean never having any form of agreement to, say, ease the access of highly-skilled workers in particular sectors to come here from the EU. It would be weird to view Brexit as re-establishing normal relations and negotiations with the rest of the world and simultaneously introducing uniquely obstructive rules against the very same relations and negotiations with the organisation we had just left.
Escaping political union with Brussels means a return to normal international relations between the UK and the EU. Such normalisation means the abnormalities of free movement, undemocratic control of our laws, and endless huge cash transfers must come to an end – but it also means things like immigration policy become potential talking points when negotiating a trade deal. That will apply to deals with the US, or India, or Brazil, or Australia, and it should apply equally to a possible deal with the EU, too. There’s nothing un-Brexiteer about that.