Crunch time for Brexit policy is fast approaching and immigration will be a key part of it. The media is now suggesting that the government is moving towards a Norwegian-style solution that would keep Britain closely aligned to the EU single market rules and regulations on goods. In response, the EU are bound to seek concessions on immigration, as Norway is in the Single Market with its ‘indivisible four freedoms’.
Siren voices in Britain are suggesting conceding the continuation of free movement with the minor tweaks of an “emergency brake” or requiring a job offer. Apparently Number Ten is saying that these are not the intention but, so far, the UK has caved in to virtually every EU demand on immigration matters.
So let us be clear why both are hopeless. They would do virtually nothing to reduce the impacts of EU migration on population, housing, health services and education which are especially strong in particular parts of England. Furthermore, either would amount to an abandonment of the government’s pledge to control immigration, let alone to reduce it, which many believe that they were promised. A recent Channel 4 poll found that 70 per cent of voters want a reduction in immigration from the EU.
In theory, the Norwegians have an “emergency brake”, but it has to have the approval of the European Commission and it has to be reviewed every three months with a view to its abolition. Indeed, the Norwegians have never used it, reportedly for fear that it might trigger retaliatory action from the EU.
As for free movement for those who have a job offer, it is surely obvious that this would simply lead to a boom for employment agencies who already advertise widely in Eastern Europe – to say nothing of all those who could arrange a job offer through relatives already working in Britain. Any such outcome would simply be flimsy camouflage for a wholesale retreat and for the abandonment of a major pledge to the British public.
The fact that such suggestions are even being discussed may be because the debate is being largely conducted by those, including some ministers, who have very little knowledge of how the present immigration system actually works. In practice, there are substantial aspects of our existing visa system which could perfectly well be adapted to our new situation as a non-member of the EU.
For a start, it would be very much in the interests of both sides for there to be visa free access for almost all purposes – except, of course, work. For work, we should treat EU applications in the same way as those from the rest of the world. This means restricting entry to those who come for higher-paid, highly skilled work or to work in shortage occupations as identified by the independent Migration Advisory Committee. This is no different in principle from the “blue card” system which the EU themselves offer to third-country nationals so they have little reason to object.
This would enable numbers to be capped at a level reflecting the genuine needs of the UK rather than the wishes of individuals from abroad. It would also be important to cater for international companies wishing to deploy their senior and specialist employees flexibly. These routes are already known to business so the necessary adjustments would not be beyond the wit of man.
It will also be important to nurture links with the younger generation of Europeans. As the Prime Minister has said, we are leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe. We could quite easily expand to them the present Youth Mobility Scheme which allows young people from such countries as Australia and South Korea to spend two years working in Britain. They do not qualify for benefits in any form and they are not allowed to extend their stay so those who leave would be replaced without adding to net migration and hence our population.
Finally, the concept of shortage occupations would also provide scope for a new and improved seasonal agricultural workers scheme, similar to that in New Zealand, which would allow workers to come for six months in the relevant season. There could also be temporary schemes to permit workers to come here for a limited period while British workers are trained in those skills (for example in construction). To put it in a nutshell, there is a feasible and constructive way forward that would achieve the British aim of limiting the scale of migration from the EU while maintaining many of the aspects which are valuable to both sides.
It is high time that policy discussion and, indeed, our negotiations with the EU are concentrated on practical matters of this kind from which a perfectly workable solution should evolve. The editorial in last week’s Sunday Times had it right: “Control of migration is not an option – it is a necessity.”