Tony Blair’s Suggested Controls On Migration From The European Union Are Nothing Of The Sort

The government is reportedly considering post-Brexit immigration proposals that would end free movement rules immediately upon the UK’s departure from the EU while gradually bringing in measures to reduce the number of lower-skilled European migrants. However, in an article published on 9th September, Mr Blair argues that ending the free movement of people in order to address public concerns about immigration is unnecessary. In his words, the UK can ‘curtail the things that people feel are damaging about European immigration, both by domestic policy change and by agreeing change within Europe to the freedom of movement principle’. As a paper by his think tank the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change [IGC] puts it, this would not require the UK to leave the EU. The paper outlines three key proposals for reforming free movement rules:

  1. EU nationals should be required to have an offer of work before they arrive.
  2. Those EU migrants who do not obtain permission to stay would be banned from opening a bank account, renting a home or claiming benefits, while free healthcare should be restricted for unemployed migrants and universities should be able to charge EU nationals higher tuition fees than UK students.
  3. An ’emergency brake’ could be negotiated with the EU which would allow the UK to impose temporary restrictions in certain sectors when migrant numbers were high.

This blog analyses a selection of the proposals.

The requirement that EU workers have a job before arrival

Under existing free movement rules, job seekers have the right to reside for a period exceeding six months (CoJ, Case C-292/89 Antonissen) without having to meet any conditions if they continue to seek employment in the host Member State and have a ‘genuine chance’ of finding work; during this time they cannot be expelled. According to the International Passenger Survey, the inflow of EU migrants recorded as looking for work over the last five years (2012-2016) has averaged 57,000 a year. The IGC paper suggests that one option for the UK would be seek a ‘stripped down’ form of free movement ‘under which the free movement of people would continue as before, with the exception of EU citizens moving to the UK to look for work without a job offer’.

This proposal would not give the UK sovereign control over immigration and would have a limited effect on the numbers actually coming in. Anyone with access to the internet can apply for jobs in the UK. Indeed, it is easy for recruiters to advertise in other countries while employers themselves constantly travel to Eastern Europe to recruit staff. It is true that the OECD project that Eastern Europe’s wealth will increase in the coming twenty years – but they do not anticipate any convergence in wages between the UK and the countries of Eastern Europe. Instead, the main effect of this proposal would be to generate a boom for recruitment agencies as potential migrants seek a formal job offer rather than rely on a relative or friend as an intermediary, as is often the case at present. The IPPR has also noted that this proposal would be very difficult to enforce. In their words: ‘The danger is, therefore, that through ineffective implementation, the policy would become nearly indistinguishable from the current system of free movement.’ [1]

In addition, the IPPR has noted that participants in focus groups before the referendum ‘felt that EU migrants should be welcomed only if they were going to contribute to the UK economy’. So another major problem with the IGC proposal is that it ignores the crucial distinction between migration into higher-skilled and lower-skilled jobs. Our research last year found that around 80% of EU migrants who arrived since 2006 would not have met the requirements necessary to be granted a Tier 2 (highly-skilled) work permit. A recent ICM/British Future poll found that 64% of those surveyed supported a reduction in low-skilled migration from EU. There is also limited economic justification for continuing to allow large inflows of cheap, foreign labour into lower-skilled jobs. The independent Migration Advisory Committee has found: ‘Low skilled migrants have a neutral impact on UK-born employment rates, fiscal contribution, GDP per head and productivity’ (see MAC report, p. 8).

Even the IGC paper admits that this proposal ‘would have a limited impact on total inflows in practice and would not directly address anxiety about the pace of change and/or the pressure on local services and infrastructure’. And the Financial Times agrees that this proposal ‘would be unlikely to do much to cut immigration’.[2]

Tightening up the rules surrounding access to benefits

Also included among its ‘most plausible options for reforming free movement’, the IGC paper proposes that rules surrounding access to benefits and posted workers should be amended. Current free movement rules state that after three months, EU migrants need to be either working, actively seeking work, have a member of the family working or have sufficient funds to live on. If not they can be returned to their home country.

This proposal would also both fail to meet the test of restoring control of and significantly reducing net migration from the EU. While we would welcome the removal of government subsidies for companies to employ low-paid workers from abroad (£12 million a day was paid out by HMRC and DWP to EEA migrants in 2014/15), research by Migration Watch UK has suggested that cutting benefits would be very unlikely to have much impact on actual levels of EU migration. This is because around half of new arrivals from the EU are single and about a quarter are couples without children. Their entitlement to in-work benefits is marginal, so any restriction on in-work benefits for new migrants would be very unlikely to act as a deterrent – especially as these groups are likely to benefit the most from the move to the National Living Wage, which is on track to reach £9 an hour by 2020.

Moreover, even if such measures were to be implemented, it is highly questionable whether they would have any significant impact on net migration. The ability to claim child benefit or participate in apprenticeships are not primary incentives for EU migrants to come to the UK. Instead the primary draws are likely to be the availability of employment and much higher wages in the UK rather than the attraction of the benefits regime, as well as the growing diaspora of Europeans in the UK and the rapid shrinking of home country populations – for example Bulgaria – has gathered pace in recent years.[3]

The IGC paper argues that the UK is not currently making use of all the measures at its disposal under free movement rules to control EU migration. As an example, it notes that Belgium currently requires all migrants to register at their Town Hall and writes to economically inactive migrants informing them they have no right to stay, something that the UK does not do when migrants arrive or leave. If the UK did this, it might, at most, affect a few hundred people. It would do nothing about the hundreds of thousands of people in lower-paid work in the UK that EU law has required the UK to admit freely, many of whom are not actually supporting themselves. For example nearly 20% of in-work housing benefit is paid to EEA-national led claims.

A sectoral ‘emergency brake’

The ICG paper suggests that a sectoral ‘emergency brake’ would be both negotiable and capable of securing public consent. Under this option, the paper notes: “All EU nationals would need to obtain a registration certificate from the Home Office to evidence their presence but otherwise would continue to benefit from free movement, as now. Once temporary measures were invoked, newly arriving EU nationals would face additional restrictions if they wanted to work in affected sectors, fulfilling a set of pre-agreed criteria relating to the skill classification of the job, for example. The temporary measures would thus not need to be a crude cap on EU nationals entering the UK; they could be targeted at certain sectors and impose eligibility criteria based on factors such as occupation level and occupation type.”

There would be a host of crippling practical objections to a ‘sectoral’ brake which would likely make such an idea unworkable. There are questions over which conditions would trigger the brake, who would decide upon them, what the mechanism would be for enacting it, how the new and temporary conditions would be communicated to employers and workers, how long they would last for, what the time lag would be between identification of problems and the operation of the brake and what would be the additional cost burden for businesses. This uncertainty and insecurity created by these questions would be exacerbated by the need to constantly communicate and check whether the brake had been instituted for which particular range of jobs and in which particular sector. And as the think tank British Future have noted, the nature of these safeguard mechanisms would mean they would only be able to offer a temporary period of respite from high migration. “As such, emergency brakes do not appear to build greater confidence in a government’s ability to manage and control immigration.”[4]

A sectoral ‘brake’, if it could be made to work, would be likely to simply shift immigration from one industry to another until a uniform solution could be imposed upon all sectors. This would not significantly cut net migration, only channelling it into different parts of the economy. It would not deal with the issues of population growth and pressure on housing and public services which generate the some of the key public concerns with current high levels of net migration.

There is also the question of what would be the trigger for the ‘brake’ in each sector – if, as suggested, the criteria would be skill shortages, then a key difficulty would be how such shortages are to be identified. As the Centre for European Policy Studies has noted, skill shortage indicators generally produce conflicting results. The need to assign all workers i.e. including those not currently working, to skill groups would run up against the fact that workers can adjust and amend their skills, and ‘some skills are more general and readily adjustable whereas other types of skills are more rigid’. Finally, the need to forecast the supply as well as demand for labour and skills would exacerbate these challenges.[5]

Nothing short of full control over the activation of the brake would be satisfactory to the British public. However, the model proposed by the ICG would not deliver anything like this. Instead, the paper suggests that ‘a new mechanism for authorising the invocation of safeguard measures’ would need to be identified. As the ICG suggests: “This would probably require the establishment of an independent adjudication body, made up of delegations from the UK and EU27.” This function was to have been fulfilled by the European Court of Justice in the case of the tentative ‘brake’ that was negotiated by former Prime Minister David Cameron in early 2016.

However, the notion of Britain having to apply to and gain the approval of an international body to use the brake (and possibly be required to provide evidence of labour market disruption) would be inconsistent with the idea of sovereign control of immigration that played such a role in the Referendum result. Indeed, the ICG paper notes : “There is scepticism within Brussels about whether it would ever be possible for the UK to justify triggering the brake on the basis of economic considerations.” This alone should rule out the pursuit of such an option for ‘controlling’ EU immigration.


Tony Blair’s suggested ‘controls’ on EU migration are nothing of the sort. If they were negotiable (which is highly doubtful), they might lead to a slight reduction in numbers at the margins but at the cost of the possibly permanent loss of control of immigration to an as-yet unformed international body. As well as effectively reversing the EU referendum result and its democratic demand to deliver sovereign control of immigration, they would fail to deal with public concerns regarding high net migration levels.

A better solution, along similar lines to the government’s recently leaked draft proposals, would be to allow visa-free travel for students, business visitors and the self-sufficient while largely restricting work permits to highly-skilled EU migrants, in addition to instituting a temporary transitional scheme for migration into jobs at the lower-skill level to allow business time to adjust. Such a system would both enable employers to have such access as they needed to skilled European workers while, on our calculation, eventually reducing net EU migration by about 100,000 a year.

[1] IPPR, ‘Beyond free movement’, URL:

[2] Financial Times, September 2016, URL:

[3] BBC News, ‘Why is Bulgaria’s population falling off a cliff?’, September 2017, URL:

[4] British Future, October 2016, URL:

[5] CEPS, 2014, URL:

18th September 2017 - Employment, European Union, Policy, Visas/Work Permits

Blog Post

Print Blog Entry

Share Article


Powered by FeedBlitz