How do we handle future migration from the EU?

By Alanna Thomas
Executive Director of Migration Watch UK
The Times, 11 May, 2017 

Large-scale immigration from the European Union is a relatively new phenomenon.

It is not widely known but, in the ten years prior to 2004, before the eight new East European member states joined the Union, net migration from the EU averaged just 15,000 a year — but in the ten years following, it averaged 90,000 a year.

Concern about immigration, from both Europe and outside, no doubt played a significant role in the country’s decision last year to vote to leave the EU. The prime minister understands this – explaining her commitment to end free movement of people and to maintain the target of bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands.

However, many businesses and lobby groups have expressed concern that after Brexit their sector will not be able to access the workers that they need. Our analysis shows that there will be no “cliff edge” – workers from the East European (EU10) nations who have arrived since 2008 are mostly still present and would appear to have settled here.

As for those from the old member states of the EU14 the picture is slightly different, with some evidence of departure. However, they are more likely to be in highly skilled jobs and will be unaffected by future arrangements. This suggests that a continued significant inflow is not required in order to maintain the current stock of EU workers resident in the UK.

Those who advocate continued high levels of immigration from the EU are calling for ever more workers. This will have serious implications for our population, which is growing at the fastest rate for almost a century, three quarters of which is projected to arise due to immigration.

Pressure on housing, public services and infrastructure, already severe, will only worsen. This is not what the public wants – a recent poll found that 65 per cent of the public think immigration is too high.

So what to do? Clearly, the highly skilled are of significant economic benefit. For this reason we suggest that those from the EU offered a highly skilled job should continue to be able to come to the UK but should have to obtain a work permit, similar to that which currently applies to non-EU nationals. We are not suggesting a cap and believe that 30,000 would meet annual business demand while allowing for some expansion.

We have also proposed that a working holiday visa should be opened up to nationals of EU member states, allowing young people to live and experience life in the UK, learn the language, and work during their stay. The visa should be limited to two years with no access to benefits and no settlement.

Such a system is already in place for selected non-EU countries around the world and has wider benefits in terms of cultural exchange. This so called ‘barista visa’, happily, could also address some of the concerns of the hospitality industry in our big cities, especially London.

But, there are also some who claim that after Brexit there will be a shortage of workers in certain occupations which do not meet the skills threshold for a highly skilled visa. This may indeed be the case and the government should task the Migration Advisory Committee to establish where such shortages may occur.

In this instance, it may be necessary to open up a temporary route to fill these gaps while employers start training locals. The visa could be issued for one year, extendable up to a maximum of three years, with an annual levy paid by the employer to ensure that it is always cheaper to train a local than to import someone from abroad. There should be no access to benefits or settlement.

In the long term, the default setting should be to train someone already here. There are, after all, over 1.5 million people currently unemployed and one million people working in part time jobs but who are looking for full time work.

Businesses have become accustomed to a steady flow of workers from the EU who are willing to work for low wages — often subsidised by the welfare system — thus providing little incentive to train locals, raise productivity or to improve terms and conditions for less popular but important roles. Businesses would be wise to start planning now.

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