#EUref explained: Is EU immigration really a problem needing solved?

01/06/2016
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In the first of a series of explainers on various aspects of the EU ahead of the UK’s referendum on membership, CommonSpace looks at the reality of free movement and EU migration to the UK

THE MAJOR LONDON-BASED players on both the In and Out sides of the EU referendum campaign call for lower immigration.

UKIP and other ‘Brexiters’ have long campaigned against what they describe as an ‘open border policy’ necessitated by EU membership.

Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives for the In campaign have pledged to reduce the net number of migrants coming to the UK every year from hundreds to just tens of thousands.

But what is the reality of so called ‘free movement’ in the EU, and what are its consequences?

What is free movement?

Free movement was one of the founding ideas of the European Union, and was meant to be a boost for economies across the EU.

Article 45 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union guarantees the right for the free movement of workers alongside the free movement of capital, services and goods. Its principles include “abolition of any discrimination” regarding access to employment and other social and tax advantages.

It is not certain that if the UK left the EU it would also leave the free movement zone. To continue on favourable trade terms with the EU it may be necessary for the UK to continue with free movement. This is already the case for several non-EU countries including Norway and Switzerland.

The UK is not a part of the Schengen treaty zone, within which EU countries do not operate passport controls. This deeper form of free movement has come under pressure from the refugee crisis, which has seen countries lock their borders after more than a million refugees fled to Europe in 2015.

What rights do EU migrants have in the UK?

In reality different countries across the EU impose different levels of control over migrants and what their work and benefit rights are.

Recent years have seen increasing restrictions on EU citizens gaining full access to UK citizen’s rights. Since March 2015 EU migrants have been unable to claim any benefits until they start work in the UK, and cannot claim any benefits for the first three months.

EU migrants who cannot find work within six months are required to leave the UK.

Cameron’s negotiations with the EU will mean far greater restrictions on migrants access to benefits in the event of an Out vote, including a four year “emergency break” on in-work benefits.

What is the scale of EU migration to the UK?

Despite the fact that EU citizens have a right to live and work in the UK, most immigration to the UK is from outside the EU, though the gap between non-EU and EU migration has consistently narrowed over the years.

In 2015-16 net migration from the EU was 182,000 – the highest on record. But it was still below the 188,000 net migration figure from outside the EU. Both figures are of course higher than the figure of tens of thousands of migrants aimed at by leading figures from both campaigns.

As recently as 2,000 non-EU net migration exceeded EU net migration to the UK by as much as 200,000.

There were approximately 3 million EU-born citizens living in the UK in the first quarter of 2015.

What is the impact of EU migration in the UK?

There are two broad arguments used by those who oppose what they consider to be high immigration into the UK.

The first is that it places a strain on public services.

On this first argument the evidence from numerous studies over the years is very consistent.

Because almost all EU migrants are motivated by a desire to move to the UK to work (article 45 only guarantees the free movement of workers), they pay more into the state than they use in services – they are ‘net contributors’.

Most economic migrants are young and healthy adults, and therefore are far less likely to use some of the most expensive state services like schools and hospitals.

A second argument is that migrants provide cheap labour which drives down the pay and conditions of domestic workers or creates unemployment.

The Oxford University Migration Observatory has found that whilst the impact on average incomes is negligible, the lowest paid 5 per cent of domestic workers have in the past experienced downward pressure on wages due to high immigration levels.

However, there are many factors that create conditions for falling wages, including lower trade union density and the shift from an industrial to service economy in the UK in recent decades.

Two-way street of EU migration?

While media reports often focus on the impact of inward migration, millions of UK citizens have also migrated from the UK to other European countries to work, live and retire. Spain is a particular hot-spot for retirees moving to the Mediterranean in later life. 

Supporters of the European Union argue that the ability for young people to travel and learn across EU states or for older people to move for work, provides a net benefit. However, Brexiters say that the wider impact of migration to the UK trumps those benefits.

Picture courtesy European Parliament

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