Is it possible to stop the free movement of people?

Immigration is a major concern of British voters. According to IPSOS-Mori, 44% of the population consider immigration to be the most important issue facing Britain today. Other surveys suggest that over three-quarters of UK residents want to see a reduction in immigration.

Public apprehensions tend to revolve around the perceived burden of immigrants on public services; the effects of immigration on unemployment and wages; and concerns about the social and cultural impacts of large-scale immigration.

Over the past decade, concerns about immigration have been increasingly linked to the UK’s membership of the European Union. EU law enshrines a principle of ‘free movement’, meaning that nationals of EU member states are entitled to seek a job and work in any other member country. They are also entitled to equal access to employment, wages and social security. This right is limited to those who move for work purposes – it does not extend to those who relocate to take advantage of unemployment benefits. In the case of countries newly joining the EU, member states may impose a temporary restriction on their access to the labour market, lasting up to seven years.

In the early decades of the UK’s membership, EU immigration remained relatively low, indeed more Britons went to live and work in Europe than EU nationals came to the UK. However, in 2004 when eight central and east European countries (the A-8) joined the EU, the UK together with Ireland and Sweden decided to allow immediate labour market access for the newly acceding countries. The decision was made on the grounds that labour migrants would benefit the UK economy at a time of nearly full employment and economic growth; moreover, it was projected that levels of immigration from the A-8 would remain relatively low.

However, the A-8 accession prompted a substantial increase in EU immigration. Figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest that A-8 immigration rose from around 45,000 in 2004 to over 100,000 by 2007/8. Currently, A-8 immigration is back down to just over 60,000. But other flows from the EU have become more significant. Over half of EU immigration (120,000) is now composed of nationals of the ‘old’ EU member states, primarily those from southern European countries hit by recession. At the same time, there has been a small but steady increase in immigration from Bulgaria and Romania (currently around 50,000 per year), whose nationals were permitted access to the UK labour market in 2014.

Overall, EU immigration currently now stands at around 250,000 per year. If we subtract the number of EU nationals leaving the UK, we reach a figure for net migration of almost 180,000 per year. This accounts for almost half of all net migration to the UK. These figures have become especially prominent in the context of the Conservative Party’s net migration target. In 2010, David Cameron pledged to reduce net migration to the UK from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. The Government has consistently failed to hit this target, with current net migration standing at over 300,000, higher than the peak of 2007/8. Indeed, levels of net migration are higher than at any time recorded.


A graph showing net migration into the UK 1970-2014


Welcome to Scotland?

The situation in Scotland is somewhat different to that of the rest of the UK. Both SNP and Labour-Lib Dem governments have aspired to raise, rather than reduce, the level of net migration to Scotland. This is mainly because of demographic considerations. Sustaining net migration at around 24,000 per year (including net migration from the rest of the UK) is seen as an important way of offsetting population ageing and reversing population decline. In fact, net migration to Scotland since 2004 has contributed to a steady increase in the overall population, with the highest increase consisting of Polish immigration. Census figures show that between 2001 and 2011, the number of Polish residents rose from around 2,500 to over 50,000, now overtaking Indian nationals as the largest foreign-born group in Scotland.

This pro-immigration position is not necessarily consistent with public opinion in Scotland. Surveys suggest that the majority of Scottish residents favour a reduction in immigration. However, the level of anti-immigrant sentiment in Scotland is less pronounced than the average UK, and the issue is less politically sensitive. This may be partly because – despite the substantial increase in immigration in the late 2000s – levels of immigration remain relatively low compared to other parts of the UK. The 2011 census revealed that Scotland’s foreign-born population stands at around 7% of the population, compared to 13.8% in England. The lack of political visibility may also be because immigration is not a devolved competence: Scottish governments are not held to account for immigration policy, and the issue is not a major topic of party political debate between the main Scottish parties.


graph showing flows of Non-Eu citizens overtaking EU citizens



At the UK level, the concern to limit immigration has become one of the main arguments marshalled to justify Brexit. Pro-‘Leave’ campaigners argue that EU membership impedes the UK from meeting its immigration policy goals. EU rules on free movement undermine British sovereignty by obliging the UK government to accept high levels of EU migrants seeking work. They argue that the UK will only be able to regain control of immigration policy outside of the EU. Once Britain has left, it will be able to pursue a more selective immigration policy, for example only admitting those with much needed skills. UKIP has even suggested that leaving the EU would enable the UK to meet a much more ambitious net migration target of 30,000.

Pro-‘Leave’ campaigners have also suggested that the UK would regain sovereignty in other areas of immigration policy. For example, it is often claimed that the UK would be able to implement more effective border control, becoming more effective in stopping irregular flows from Calais, or inflows of suspected terrorists. We should note, however, that the UK is not a member of the Schengen agreement on passport-less travel, and so currently has full control of its borders. Another argument is that the UK will be exempt from a series of EU Directives on immigration and asylum. Here we need to observe that the UK has no obligation to participate in any common measures on immigration and asylum: indeed, the government can choose unilaterally whether to opt in to legislation on a case-by-case basis.

Norway’s free trade depends on free movement

Those in favour of the UK remaining in the EU fall into two main groups. The first of these accepts the need to reduce immigration, but argues that Brexit is not an effective route for achieving this goal. They agree that EU immigration is too high, but disagree that Brexit can fix the problem. One reason they give is the difficulty of negotiating access to the common market without accepting EU rules on the free movement of workers. Other countries benefiting from free trade in goods and services – including Norway, Iceland and Switzerland – have been obliged to accept EU rules on the free movement of persons, which is seen as a corollary of the other ‘freedoms’ (see Chapter 8).

Moreover, pro-EU campaigners have suggested that the UK might lose its influence over other important aspects of European immigration policy. The UK has voluntarily opted in to a number of instruments that are considered to be in the national interest, such as the Dublin Convention for determining which member state is responsible for assessing asylum applications, and the EURODAC database of asylum applicants.

The Labour Government opted into EU Directives on minimum standards for asylum procedures and reception of asylum seekers, as well as the definition of who qualifies for asylum (although the Conservative Government is less keen on participating in these measures). The UK has also actively participated in measures to combat irregular migration, including Directives on carrier and employer sanctions, anti-trafficking measures, readmission agreements with non-EU countries, and it has participated in joint naval patrols in the Mediterranean.

Furthermore, ‘Remain’ proponents suggest, if the UK restrict EU immigration, UK nationals living in other EU countries might face retaliatory measures. If the UK puts a quota on EU immigration to the UK, British pensioners retiring to Southern Spain, or UK engineers relocating to Germany, are likely to suffer similarly restrictive measures.

Instead, this camp claims that other measures short of Brexit will be more effective in reducing EU immigration. The most prominent alternative is to reduce welfare benefits for immigrants. The assumption here is that EU immigrants are attracted to the UK because of generous social and welfare system. Reducing their entitlements to benefits will thus lead to a reduction in inflows. The Conservative Government has already reduced access to out-of-work benefits – and this has been relatively uncontroversial from the perspective of EU law, given that free movement provisions are designed to promote the mobility of workers. However, the Government has sought to go further, pressing for a ban on EU immigrants accessing in-work tax credits, and limiting their ability to export child benefit to children living outside of the UK.



Wrong answer to the wrong question

David Cameron was able to negotiate a deal along these lines at the European Council meeting in February 2016. EU member states agreed that a country could impose an ‘emergency brake’ lasting up to seven years on EU immigrants accessing in-work credits in their first four years of residence. The agreement also permits member states to index exported child benefit to the rates of the country of residence. It should be noted, however, that there is limited evidence that these benefits act as a magnet for EU immigrants. Thus many critics have suggested that the concessions are largely symbolic.

The second group in the ‘Remain’ camp rejects the notion that EU immigration should be reduced. EU immigrants, they argue, have made an important contribution to the UK economy. They are net contributors to the welfare state, they augment GDP, and they fill important shortages in the labour market. In the case of Scotland, EU immigration also plays and important role in offsetting declining and ageing populations. Moreover, EU immigrants fill jobs that UK nationals are either unwilling or unable to take up – because they don’t have the required skills, live in the wrong area, or are put off by poor conditions and wages. Indeed, ONS statistics suggest that 58% of EU nationals coming to the UK to work already have a job offer before they get here.

This begs an important question: what effect might a ban on EU immigration have on the economy? If EU nationals are filling so many jobs, then a significant restriction of immigration would create serious labour shortages, with damaging effects for those sectors most reliant on foreign labour: manufacturing, food and drink processing, cleaning, food preparation and hospitality, and health.

What this all suggests is that the focus on EU membership as the key to resolving the immigration problems may be misplaced. First, because the UK is unlikely to secure a deal that combines full access to the common market with an exemption to rules on free movement. Second, because even if the UK could negotiate such a deal, the demand for foreign labour is likely to remain unchanged, placing pressure on any government to ensure an adequate inflow of labour immigration. The current government’s difficulty in reducing even non-EU immigration demonstrates how difficult it is for pro-business administrations to reduce economically beneficial forms of immigration.

As a final thought, it is quite likely that levels of EU immigration will in any case decline over the coming decade. As we saw, the highest flows are from southern European countries affected by the financial crisis. These flows are likely to recede as their economies pick up. Polish immigration is already on the decline, and Romanian and Bulgarian immigration remains relatively modest. Instead, my prediction is that within a few years we will see lower levels of EU immigration, but increased immigration from non-EU countries. Concerns about immigration will not go away; but the furore over EU free movement will recede.

This article from Britain’s Decision Facts and Impartial Analysis for the EU Referendum  is reproduced with permission.



  1. says

    A view from Ireland. Mass immigration in my city has lead to unemployment, huge pressure on services,homeless crisis and a rise in islamaphobia.I can see absolutely no benefit in bringing quantity over quality. As a nurse,I work with many nationalities,Indian and Pakistani doctors,Filipino nurses,all have contributed greatly to Irish society. Then you have the unskilled migrants,who do the manual labour.They have lowered wages,service quality and they just keep coming.Rents are up wages are down.Lots of people I know are getting very annoyed with the Muslim plague too. Lots of Irish emigrated during the financial crash in 2008,and now can’t really come home because of the replacement population.The non EU migrants seem to have no interest in Ireland, just our welfare system. Difficult to see any Immigrants going home.Most are a huge burden to the taxpayer. A points system of immigration is needed to weed out the wasters.

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