In his article for Conservative Home a week ago today, James Cartlidge held out the prospect of a “miracle cure” for the related problems of trade and immigration post-Brexit. This amounts to swallowing a pill called “EFTA” – and all would be well. At one stroke, we would be out of the CAP, CFP and direct ECJ jurisdiction, as well as being able to negotiate our own trade deals, while having the power to tackle high levels of immigration by means of an emergency brake on the lines available to EEA states.
Would that life were that simple. Sadly, an ‘emergency brake’ along such lines would not be effective, practical or desirable.
Cartlidge is technically right that the EEA Agreement allows for the unilateral application of an emergency ‘brake’ on free movement at any time. Indeed, this provision in Article 112 is fundamentally different from the EU Treaties, which only provide for an emergency brake in relation to arrivals from new member states during transitional periods after their initial joining.
Yet, if nothing else, the referendum made clear that voters wish the UK to gain full sovereign control over immigration. Any newfound ‘control’ under the EEA arrangements would be effectively vitiated by the fact that the relevant applicant country must notify the EEA Joint Committee if it wishes to trigger the ‘brake’, and then enter into discussions on its application with other states. And use of the brake has to be reviewed every three months.
Other countries can challenge the application of the ‘brake’, and even ‘retaliate’ if they so wish. Perhaps because of this threat of potential retribution, Norway has never actually used it, despite a relatively high rate of net migration for her population size.
Nor is Liechtenstein (the one country that has put the measures into effect after a long negotiation) a helpful model. Her exception from free movement rules, which is more than 20 years old, is reviewed every five years. At less than a third the size of the Isle of Man, she is a special case (having a ‘very small inhabitable area of rural character’, as the EEA Council noted in its 2016 review of the arrangements).
Meanwhile, EFTA member Switzerland’s attempts to exert sovereign control over migration following its 2014 referendum have been rebuffed by the EU and led, in late 2016, to effective capitulation by the Swiss government in order to retain Single Market access, despite the public’s call for caps on numbers. Measures along such lines would do little or nothing to address unease about the pressure that rapid UK population growth of half a million people a year (mostly driven by immigration) is placing on roads, public transport, schools, hospitals and housing.
In recent months there has indeed been a political silence that cannot continue on the issue of future immigration. Words must be matched by real action on developing policies that will genuinely give control over numbers. Indeed, the public grows ever more disillusioned as their views on immigration are continually dismissed or even sneered at.
There is no get out of jail card on immigration. We have to devise and implement a system that meets our economic needs and commands public assent.
Cartlidge is right to say that sectors of the UK economy should be able to ‘gradually transition’ away from any partial reliance on lower-paid EU workers. Even PwC acknowledge that, although it may take time, ‘skills gaps left by lower future net migration from the EU could be filled by enhanced training of UK nationals and automation’.
That is why we have suggested that those EU migrants with skills in short supply, should be able to come to the UK for a time-limited period after Brexit, and that there should be a charge on employers, increasing annually, to encourage the training of British replacements.
Meanwhile, claims that cutting the annual net inflow of lower-skilled EU migration would lead to a collapse of various sectors of the economy do not stand up to scrutiny. Even if overall net EU migration were reduced to zero, the result would be “one in, one out” and the present stock of European workers would not decline. The latest data shows their numbers are actually higher than they were at the time of the referendum.
Post-Brexit immigration arrangements must meet the triple challenge of reducing immigration in line with public wishes, ensuring that businesses can attract the talent they need and preserving relatively unhindered movement for EU tourists, business visitors, students and the self-sufficient.
Expanding the UK’s current work permit scheme to those from the EU who wish to take up highly-skilled jobs, while reducing the level of lower-skilled migration, would result in a substantial cut in numbers. Indeed, our proposals are likely reduce net migration by around 100,000 a year on recent levels. This is the practical way forward.