By Alanna Thomas
Executive Director of Migration Watch UK
The Times, 17 July, 2017
A number of widely-reported commentators argue that the UK should seek a Norway-style “halfway-house” Brexit to protect jobs and the economy.
This would involve the UK remaining in the single market as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA).
But there is a key drawback. This would leave the UK subject to the free movement of people for the indefinite future — an outcome that would be unacceptable to the majority of British people who only last month gave more than 80 per cent of their votes to parties that promised to regain control of the UK’s borders .
Reports published by Migration Watch UK today suggest that the result would be EU net migration continuing at well over 100,000 a year for the next decade if not longer.
Despite uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the devaluation of the pound, there is still nothing to suggest that there has been any real diminution of the main push and pull factors. These include high rates of youth unemployment in southern Europe, a large gap between wages in the UK and eastern Europe and a ready availability of low-paid jobs in a flexible labour market.Nearly 600,000 National Insurance numbers were registered by EU citizens in 2016/17, including nearly 224,000 from just two countries, Romania and Bulgaria.
Factors such as the diaspora of more than three million EU citizens already in the UK, the lowest UK unemployment rate since 1975 and a national living wage increasing to £9 an hour by 2020 are only likely to ensure that the UK remains a highly attractive destination for many EU citizens, particularly those from southern and eastern Europe.
The consequences for our society would be very serious. With net migration of those from outside the EU likely to continue at the current level of 175,000 a year unless further restrictions are introduced and net British emigration of 50,000 a year, overall net migration would continue at its current level of about a quarter of a million a year.
According to the ONS population projections, this would mean the UK population rising by more than ten million over two decades. We would have to build the equivalent of a city the size of Birmingham every two years.
Quite apart from growing pressures on the NHS and on our schools, official housing projections show that net migration to England at around the present level means that a home will need to be built every five minutes, day and night, at least until 2039 just to house future migrants, yet the government remains in denial.
Meanwhile some politicians, including Nick Clegg and Labour’s Stephen Kinnock, have tried disingenuously to suggest that a Norway-style Brexit would allow the UK to control EU migration.
Mr Kinnock, for example, argued that transitional membership of the EEA would allow the UK to make use of an “emergency brake” in the EEA agreement. But this would only allow for temporary controls in the event of serious disruption.
In practice, Norway’s brake is by no means in its own hands and it is said that they have never used it for fear of retaliation by the EU. The reality is that the EEA safeguard measures are not designed to provide any more than limited and temporary restrictions that certainly cannot be called control of immigration.
In David Cameron’s ill-fated attempts at renegotiating our membership, although the EU recognised that the UK was in a situation of serious disruption, they were only prepared to offer to allow the UK phased restrictions on some benefit payments. At the time, despite recommending this deal to the public, the government was unable to say that this would have any impact at all on the numbers coming to the UK.
Thus EEA membership does not of itself appear to provide any realistic prospect of taking control over immigration from the EU.
However it came about, continued free movement of people would be against the wishes of most British people, 58 per cent of whom say it is “essential” for net migration to be brought down with only 18 per cent disagreeing.
Brexit provides a crucial opportunity for the UK to finally regain control of its borders and significantly reduce net migration. The public expect no less.