Richard North, 04/01/2013  

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Over the past few days, we have seen a small but important illustration of what it might be like when (or if) an EU referendum is declared. In particular, we have seen the Financial Times throwing its hat into the ring, launching a succession of scares aimed at dissuading us from considering a rapid departure from "Mother Europe".

That much is very similar to what we were seeing in 1975, when the media piled in behind the Government to support Britain's continued membership of the (then) Common Market.

Forty-plus years later (when we expect to have our next referendum), things will not be quite the same, as we now have the experience of the "benefits" of membership, one of which has been unrestricted immigration from accession countries.

Thus, even the europhile Economist is not able to maintain a wholly optimistic front, currently reporting concerns over the Balkans and the abuse of the asylum system.

Recently, there has been a surge in numbers, especially from Serbia and Macedonia. Says the Economist, in 2009, before visas were lifted for them, 9,860 of their citizens applied for asylum in the EU. In 2012, with incomplete data to October, the figure stood at 33,530. Serbians in Germany made 10,412 applications and Macedonians 6,012. Serbs topped the list of asylum seekers there, well ahead of Afghans and Syrians.

Soon we are to see a new wave of Romanians and Bulgarians, with potentially half a million immigrants from those countries landing in the UK after this year. The threat was enough to spark a debate in Westminster Hall recently, and there is no disguising the concerns. In the UK there are now almost 1.1 million eastern Europeans from the original "A8 accession countries". Another half million would be most unwelcome.

But there is an even bigger threat in the offing, as turmoil in Syria puts pressure on the Greek borders. Nearly 100,000 immigrants were arrested while trying to cross from Turkey in 2011, and despite the erection of a new border fence, the authorities are seeing seemingly endless waves of illegal immigrants taking to small boats in order to reach the European Union. 

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With this and other stress points, we can be assured that immigration will become a factor in any referendum in a way that it did not become in 1975. The prospect of further migration could well be a pivotal factor, driving voters into the "out" camp.

Perversely, any temporary deal along the lines of EEA membership will not solve the immigration problem, as "freedom of movement" is very much part of the Single Market package that goes with the EEA.

Furthermore, with an estimated two million British citizens resident in EU countries, we are not in a position to exclude nationals from other EU member states, without causing serious disruption to the lives of our own expats. Many of those retain voting rights in the UK and, with the resident immigrant population, their votes could tilt the balance in a referendum.

This notwithstanding, the highest immigration of any ethnic group into the UK comes from India, beating the Irish, the Polish and even Pakistanis.

Non-EU immigration will be used by the europhiles as evidence that immigration from EU members states is of lesser significance, although even migration from this sources is significantly affected by EU law.

Especially significant is Directive 2003/86/EC on family reunification. That category accounts for 17 percent of UK immigration. Significantly, permits for non-EU families as a percentage of total legal immigration in 2011 amounted to 13 percent.

Nevertheless, the UK has opted out of the Directive, but family reunification is a right recognised in the European Convention of Human Rights, which would continue to apply even if we leave the European Union. Unless there is an explicit commitment to abrogate the Convention, leaving the EU will not resolve anything.

And that epitomises the broader issue. As Norway has found, being outside the EU does not automatically solve the "immigrant problem". Domestic law, and the elimination of "pull" factors, such as an over-generous benefit system, have an impact on inwards migration, while some of the issues have to be dealt with on a global level, with the United Nations centre stage.

Thus, while immigration might become a major topic in any forthcoming referendum, the issues are not straightforward and there are arguments on both sides of the divide. A post-EU policy needs to be devised and it is moot, in the shorter term at least, whether departure from the EU, per se, will afford any relief at all. 

At best, leaving the EU will be only one of a package of measures that will enable us eventually to regain control of our borders. In any campaign, therefore, we need to manage expectations, or the immigration "card" could backfire on us.


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