Cyclefree: If Leave wins, immigration will likely have been one of the main factors. But what then? Indeed, what then if Remain wins?
Much as with the EU debate itself, the immigration debate has been characterised by dishonesty, evasion and avoidance of reality.
So – much like the Irishman asked for directions saying that they wouldn’t start from here – let me suggest some basic requirements for an immigration policy and compare them with what we have within the EU and what we might get outside it.
- Governments need to be explicit with voters about – and get their consent to – (a) the need for immigrants; (b) the numbers; and (c) who the immigrants are likely to be.
- The number and type of immigrant needs to be what is in this country’s interest. Immigration should be primarily for the benefit of the receiving country not the immigrant. Bluntly, just because someone wants very much to come here should be an insufficient reason for accepting them.
- Not all immigrants are of equal value. Any well-run immigration system should distinguish between those groups – and individuals within those groups – who are likely to be a benefit to this country and those who are not.
- “Benefit” should be defined widely to mean more than economic benefit. Social cohesion matters. Willingness to contribute and integrate and become British matter. Being British involves something more than simply holding a British passport. It means living fully in a country and setting aside to a very significant extent the mores, habits, culture and behaviours of the country you are leaving. An immigrant should be like another drop of water in a jug of water not like a drop of oil which will never mix.
- Immigration has costs and benefits. Government should be open with voters about who bears the costs and about how those who benefit should contribute so as to mitigate the costs.
- There must be a quick and effective way of getting rid of those immigrants who turn out to be not wanted (e.g. because of criminal behavior).
- Immigrants should contribute to the receiving country for a period before receiving benefits or otherwise pay for benefits. Immigrants should not be free riders on the contributions of others. “Need” cannot be the only basis on which rationed public goods and benefits are shared; “contribution” should also feature.
- There are many areas of the world where there is war / serious civil strife / appalling governments. It is no longer feasible to think that one country can give asylum to the numbers involved even if the individuals involved may have well founded claims for asylum. The international asylum/refugee laws need to take into account of the numbers involved and either severely limit the right to asylum or place a numbers cap on it for any one country.
With the EU’s Freedom of Movement EU governments have effectively lost all control of points 1-4. But this has been known ever since we joined. It has become acute because of the recent increase in numbers (itself a consequence of Britain’s relatively better economic performance) and because this occurred at around the same time that there was also an increase in immigration and asylum claims from non-EU countries.
The government’s failure to be open about non-EU immigration or to control it effectively has fed a sense that it has lost control of all immigration and, for some, that only departure from the EU will restore control. But will it? Even setting aside the likelihood that any post-Brexit deal will likely require some level of free movement, the most intractable social problems associated with immigration have not really centered around Spanish nurses, French bankers or Polish plumbers. How to manage non-EU immigration will still exist whether or not Britain leaves the EU.
5 has never been done. It is not being done now. Some level of good quality immigration is on the whole a good thing. But even it will have costs and those who bear the costs are often those least able to do so. Governments who fail to recognize people’s concerns, who insult or condescend to the losers, who fail to take action to share those costs fairly, who fail to help those most affected deserve to get a bloody nose from the losers. This referendum will be used by some to give the government that bloody nose.
7 is a British peculiarity. A more contribution based system would do much to allay concerns, something which British governments of all types have been reluctant to do. Whether we stay or leave, this would require a more ruthless approach to how a welfare system should be constructed and what a “free” schools/health system really mean when anyone flying into a country can access them. Free movement of peoples and a welfare system sit uneasily with each other. At some point one or other will have to give.
6 and 8 are the most intractable. But they are the ones that any serious government will need to address. No immigration system can long hold people’s consent if those who break the rules face no moral hazard, face no punishment for so doing. A right to family life should not mean a right to a family life only in the country of the wrongdoer’s choice. And yet the irony is that any attempt to alter the ECHR or redefine asylum or alter the various refugee conventions will require Britain to work with other countries. Whether we are in or out of the EU will not change that fact.
Two tentative conclusions for PB’ers to chew over: (1) Brexit will not be an answer to all or even most of the immigration issues Britain currently faces. It may help at the margins. But that is not how it is being sold by the Leave campaign. (2) A vote to Remain is not the sort of whole-hearted “yes” to more unlimited immigration from the EU by the voters not because that is not the reality but because that is not how it is being presented to voters. And so the same concerns will resurrect themselves in some form even after a Remain vote.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Note – This post was originally published at 2pm, but was replaced due to the ICM polls coming out shortly thereafter