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Brexit: The Role of Migration in the Upcoming EU Referendum

Brexit: The Role of Migration in the Upcoming EU Referendum

Prime Minister David Cameron speaking outside Number 10 Downing Street

Prime Minister David Cameron speaking outside Number 10 Downing Street (Photo: Tom Evans/UK Government)

A high-stakes referendum on whether the United Kingdom will withdraw from the European Union (EU) will be held on June 23, 2016. While migration is not the sole issue driving those seeking a future apart from the European Union, it is among the key considerations that led to the referendum’s call, and has been one of the recurring topics of tension with Brussels.

The United Kingdom’s decision to put full membership to the test—the first time that a major EU Member State has done so—has enormous ramifications. The European Union is not simply a free trading space of 28 countries, but also permits the free movement of people and has significant pooled governance.

It is a measure of the times that “Brexit,” as the referendum is known, is a second-tier issue for many EU governments, behind the refugee crisis, the rise of the populist far right, the aftermath of the 2008-09 recession, and security on Europe’s Eastern border amid increasingly bellicose activities by Russia. Nonetheless, while this decision concerns mainly the United Kingdom, it’s certain that the broader European project would suffer immense damage and that debates in other Euroskeptic countries (such as Poland and even the Netherlands) over membership would ensue.

This article explores how the politics and policies of the UK government on migration have influenced the decision to hold the referendum, how immigration might influence the result, and finally the implications of both referendum outcomes (Leave or Remain) in terms of migration policy and regulation.

A High-Stakes Election

There have been only two previous UK-wide referenda: in 1975, when voters also were asked their view of the United Kingdom’s place in Europe, and in 2011, on whether to change the electoral system.

The decision to hold this referendum was thus not taken on a whim; it required significant political capital and was the first priority of the majority Conservative government (elected in May 2015). Why did this decision, with its immense consequences, become the primary objective of a Cameron government dedicated to a program of economic stabilization and domestic reform?

There are two main political reasons: the internal politics of a governing Conservative Party that has become increasingly Euroskeptic, and the anti-immigration-fueled rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Underneath these political explanations lie questions of public and democratic consent for policies that are increasing constrained by membership in the European club.

For the Conservative Party “Europe” is a defining challenge, dating to the 1990s, when Euroskeptics undermined the government of John Major (especially after his agreement to sign the Maastricht Treaty in 1992). Two decades later, the Conservative Party has become overwhelming Euroskeptic—the split is between soft and hard Euroskeptics—and Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to call this referendum, against his instincts, in a gambit to hold his party together.

Internal party wrangling aside, a referendum was not likely while the public saw the UK-EU relationship as second tier in importance. The rise of UKIP from fringe group to a significant force in British politics represented the second major political factor in the move toward a Brexit campaign. Founded on an anti-EU platform in 1993, UKIP experienced a breakthrough in 2013 local elections, followed in 2014 when the party under the leadership of the charismatic Nigel Farage received the most UK seats in European Parliamentary elections. While “winner-take-all” election rules prevented UKIP from increasing its presence in the British Parliament during the 2015 general election, the party drew nearly 4 million votes.

Importantly, the increase in support for UKIP was not driven by rising anxieties over the European Union, but rather by concern over immigration. These concerns rose alongside a substantial increase in asylum claims, particularly in 1999-2003, and an uptick in European migration that began in 2004. Opinion polls show UKIP supporters share strong anti-immigration attitudes, with the party strengthening its base with its stance on immigration. For instance 70 percent of UKIP supporters identify immigration as the most important issue facing the United Kingdom, compared to 45 percent of Conservative voters and just above 25 percent of Labour voters. This is likely both because UKIP leaders have focused on immigration as their rallying issue and because the party’s base has expanded to encompass the not-insignificant proportion of the population that is implacably opposed to immigration.

Immigration and Europe Entwined

The UKIP constituency, driven by a desire to see a major reduction in immigration (whether from within the European Union or beyond), has accelerated the realignment of the main parties to a position of being openly skeptical of migration’s benefits.

The major parties are currently committed to a program of reducing immigration levels and lowering entitlements for immigrants. However, while the United Kingdom remains part of the European Union—for which free movement for its 508 million citizens is a central tenet—unilateral efforts to reduce the level of immigration and cut entitlements are not possible. Thus concerns over immigration provided the popular momentum for a referendum to test whether the electorate is prepared to countenance a future in Europe that constrains and shapes policy responses on key issues, above all on migration. This is occurring against the backdrop of the United Kingdom’s self-perceived and partially real semi-detachment from Europe.

The referendum became certain after the Conservatives were elected to a majority government in May 2015. Cameron was explicit about his strategy: He would renegotiate the terms of EU membership and then campaign to remain in the European Union.

UK Renegotiation of the EU Terms

Cameron achieved a new deal on the United Kingdom’s EU membership on February 19, 2016, following a tortuous weekend of negotiations capping a set of summits with EU leaders that began in 2015. The following day, he set the referendum date for June 23, claiming the United Kingdom now had “special status” in Europe.

The content of the renegotiation has been the subject of fierce debate, with most close observers suggesting it offers several concessions but does not fundamentally restructure the UK-EU relationship. The agreed-upon changes relating to migration essentially involve a series of restrictions and curtailment of some rights for EU migrants to work in the United Kingdom. They include: limiting in-work benefits (tax credits) for migrants in low-paid work (such limits last for a period of four years and were described as an “emergency brake”); restrictions on unemployment benefits for those who have no prior history of work in the United Kingdom; reductions in the level of child welfare benefits that can be sent abroad (payments will now be indexed to those in the country of heritage, most of which are set at lower levels than in the United Kingdom); restrictions on family reunification for non-EU migrants; and finally restrictions on free labor movement for future EU Member States.

These new restrictions require legislative change, and therefore the agreement of three branches of EU governance. The artifice to do so is that the European Commission (which has the legislative initiative) will, upon a UK vote to remain in the European Union, propose amendments that the European Council (made up of all Member States) has undertaken to immediately accept. The European Parliament is expected to follow suit.

State of the Race

On February 20, the referendum campaign started in earnest. As of this article’s publication, polling suggested a very slight lead for the Remain campaign, albeit with a declining majority from earlier surveys. As of late April, Ipsos MORI polling found 45 percent of decided voters expressing a preference to stay versus 41 percent wanting to leave the Union. An estimated 10 percent remained undecided and 25 percent were open to changing their mind.

Political leanings are a strong indicator of voting intention. Green, Labour, and Liberal Democrat supporters are strongly in favor of Remain, whereas Conservative and UKIP supporters break in favor of Leave—the latter overwhelmingly. Age is also a strong determiner: voters under age 30 are heavily Remain, while those over age 60 strongly lean to Leave. London residents and minorities lean to Remain, but not hugely. Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish voters lean to Remain, heavily in the case of Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The outcome will largely turn on two factors. The first is how swing Conservative-leaning voters, currently split approximately 60-40 in favor of Leave, cast their vote. Such voters are anxious about migration but also prize economic security, and as a result the Remain campaign leaders are underlining concerns over the economic insecurity and chaos that could result from Brexit. Leave proponents argue that the UK economy’s future outside the EU will be successful, while simultaneously promising to restrict migration.

The second critical factor is turnout. Low turnout would almost certainly deliver a Leave result. Very high turnout, which would include more Labour voters, young people, and minorities, likely would deliver the opposite result. A high turnout is far from assured, given the ambivalence of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn towards the European Union and Labour’s lukewarm campaign for Remain.

What Role Is Migration Playing in the Campaign?

The topic of migration has been central to the referendum debate. For an astonishing nine consecutive months, voters have identified immigration as among the most important issues facing Britain (based on Ipsos MORI polling). In April, 47 percent rated immigration as the most pressing concern; just half that number identified the economy as the most important issue. However, when asked specifically about their vote on Europe, respondents cite the economy as their primary consideration, with migration a close second.

The public debate on migration has encompassed several dimensions, including whether being part of the European Union enhances or decreases security; what the United Kingdom’s response should be on accepting refugees for resettlement and providing additional funds to help resolve the refugee crisis; and above all what migration flows will look like in the future and whether restrictions on migration are compatible with Brexit (and the resultantly-necessary new EU trade deal). The underlying theme is to what degree and at what cost the national government can control and restrict migration by leaving the European Union.

Not surprisingly after the Paris and Brussels attacks, both sides share a general concern over terrorism and security related to migration. Remain campaigners claim improved intelligence sharing between EU countries will increase security, while Leave proponents argue that the United Kingdom’s greater ability to prevent movement once outside the European Union and increased border security will reduce threats.

With EU Member States having received more than 1 million asylum seekers and migrants in 2015, both sides contend the crisis will dramatically influence voting decisions. The United Kingdom has played a highly limited role in the refugee crisis thus far (refusing for example to take part in the EU scheme to relocate 160,000 refugees across Member States). Coupled with relatively low numbers of spontaneous arrivals of refugees and the absence thus far of a terrorist attack on UK soil, suggestions that terrorism and Europe’s refugee crisis will decide the referendum appear exaggerated.

Public opinion on future migration flows and restrictions currently matter more to voters. The most passionate Leave supporters (representing around one-quarter of the UK public) are very strongly correlated with the most anti-immigrant UK voters. Voters strongly attached to an “English” (as opposed to a “British”) identity—a disproportionately Conservative-leaning group crucial to the outcome—favor leaving the European Union. Furthermore, anxieties over migration extend beyond this group, with two-thirds of the public favoring migration restrictions.

However, the conclusion that immigration is the trump card for the Leave campaign is perhaps misguided. While a majority has expressed support for migration restrictions on European migrants, that support drops below the 50 percent threshold needed to win a referendum if these restrictions result in penalties on trade and business. Likewise, there is majority support for policies that support the entry of international students and high-skilled workers. The more strident anti-immigration rhetoric similarly puts off the majority of the public.

Migration restrictions may be a powerful motivator, but support wanes when voters consider that such curbs would result in penalties on doing business in Europe (the only realistic scenario) and threaten the United Kingdom’s economy. In short, when it comes to migration, UK voters are tough but pragmatic.

Consequences of a Vote to Leave

The Remain and Leave outcomes have starkly different implications. The following section focuses mainly on migration, but it is worth emphasizing that these are only hypothetical scenarios.

If Leave prevails, the consequences will be radical, and not just for migration policy. In particular, leaving the European Union would require a new treaty in order to continue trading with EU countries—affecting trade beyond the European Union—with important implications for the economy. This would all happen quickly as the rules for Brexit allow a very short negotiating period of only two years before this would take effect.

Naturally, Brexit would also affect domestic politics. The most immediate consequences have been widely anticipated, including calls for a second Scottish independence referendum and a leadership election within the Conservative party as Cameron would likely step down, with London’s popular Mayor and surprise Leave champion Boris Johnson in excellent position to replace him.

Migration Policy in a Brexit Scenario

Turning to the implications for migration policy if Brexit occurs: after a maximum of two years to negotiate a new set of UK-EU policies, the European Union’s regulations on free movement, family reunion rights, and asylum harmonization would no longer apply. There are several plausible assumptions that can be made as to what might replace the current situation.

First, free movement for Europeans could be restricted for work, study, and family reunification, though there is debate whether the United Kingdom would impose such restrictions. Some commentators have suggested, for example, that the United Kingdom could join the European Economic Area (EEA) or European Free Trade Association (EFTA), similar to Norway and Switzerland.

However, if more than half of UK voters chose to leave the European Union, the most salient reason for them to do so would be to restrict immigration. It would thus be untenable to retain EU free movement, and restrictions would become inevitable.

How would restrictions be implemented and what would the implications be? There are several options for how this could work in practice. The most obvious would be to extend the Points-Based System (PBS), which currently applies to non-EU immigrants, to all immigrants. EU nationals applying for a work or study permit would therefore be required to meet the same PBS income and qualification requirements in place for non-EU migrants. While there is no way of accurately forecasting the impact of such hypothetical restrictions, applying current non-EU restrictions to EU flows suggests only around one in five EU nationals in the current intake would meet PBS requirements. Given that most come to the United Kingdom for work, this could dramatically reduce such inflows.

The economic consequences of such a policy remain unclear. However, several implications can be plausibly assumed. The best available independent economic analyses suggest negative impacts on GDP and productivity, with resulting short- and long-term effects on the government’s fiscal targets. The pain would not be shared equally. Businesses and public services with a heavy reliance on migrant labor (e.g., agriculture and hospitality sectors, as well as health and social care) would find it challenging to recruit necessary workers, as many have increasingly turned to EU labor markets in recent years amid tightening channels for non-EU migration. Such employers would come under significant pressure to adapt their business models and/or reduce service capacity. Given the impacts would be very sector-specific, the government would come under pressure to consider sector-specific schemes (which have existed before in the United Kingdom), or consider expanding the “low-skill” Tier 3 of the PBS.

The other obvious challenge is that the Home Office would have to increase its visa processing capacity, border management, and enforcement capabilities.

Furthermore, rule changes would only be legally, morally, and practically permissible from the point of EU withdrawal onward. This would imply that European nationals already living in the United Kingdom would retain their current rights. For pragmatic reasons, the most obvious solution would be to provide permanent residence to anyone who can prove residence by a certain cutoff date. On current numbers, this would apply to approximately 3 million EU nationals, 2 million of whom have been in the United Kingdom for five years or longer.

The European Response to Brexit

UK restrictions on free movement almost inevitably would entail an EU response, including a significant penalty when negotiating any new trade agreements with the United Kingdom. The EU-Canada trade deal (CETA), due for ratification in 2016 after years of negotiation, offers perhaps the most analogous scenario to what could be expected if Brexit occurs. CETA ends 98 percent of EU-Canada industrial tariffs. But its main focus is on trade in nonagricultural goods rather than trade in service. With services making up four-fifths of the UK economy, even with CETA as a baseline there is no scenario that does not involve significant penalties on the UK service sector and agricultural businesses trading with any EU Member State after Brexit.

Another plausible assumption, again following the view that UK restrictions on free movement would be inevitable, is that Brexit would trigger changes to key border arrangements that are legally based on EU membership. The two most obvious ones that would need renegotiation: juxtaposed controls in France (especially the contested efforts to hold back UK-bound migrants at Calais) and access between Spain and Gibraltar. EU deportation agreements also would no longer apply, making it difficult for the United Kingdom to return unauthorized migrants to certain countries—at a time when irregular migration likely would increase (discussed below).

If Remain Prevails

It is tempting to assume status quo if Remain prevails, but such a scenario probably underestimates the changes likely as a result of the terms renegotiated by Cameron and EU leaders earlier this year. It is also important to note that outcomes may look very different with a close vote than if there is an unexpected, emphatic endorsement to remain in the European Union.

The agreed-upon migration restrictions will have effects, especially in the longer term. While the changes to welfare likely will have minimal effects given the high levels of employment by European nationals, in-work poverty for low-paid migrant workers can be expected to rise. Although of small net effect overall, this development could have deep impacts on particular groups, as the Migration Observatory has shown, particularly substantial reductions in income for two-parent migrant families who are in full-time, minimum-wage employment.

Increased grants of UK citizenship to European nationals, which currently are low, also could increase over the longer term, in part to assure full access to social welfare benefits.

Restrictions on free movement for nationals of future EU Member States could represent a more significant change, particularly considering historical UK support for EU expansion. While of no immediate effect, this provision could hold very substantial implications in the longer term for countries such as Serbia (and in the distant future, perhaps Turkey).

A close vote to remain could result in increased political pressure to distance the United Kingdom from further entanglement with the refugee crisis in Europe (including the issue of migrants massed in refugee camps in Calais, Dunkirk, and other parts of Northwest France awaiting hoped-for travel across the English Channel). This, of course, cuts both ways as the European Union discusses an increasingly interconnected response to resettlement, relocation, and responsibilities under the Dublin Convention. In contrast, an emphatic victory for Remain would give the UK government increased political capital to engage in the European refugee crisis.

A Remain vote also underestimates the likely impact on UK domestic politics and policy. Affirmation that the public is not willing to sacrifice EU membership for migration restrictions offers a potentially important moment for UK immigration policy: that the public is not enthusiastic about current levels of migration but is willing to accept governance in the broader public interest, focused on integration and high-skilled migration.

Again, the extent of change depends on the margin of victory. An emphatic victory for Remain would likely lead to rethinking on migration policy by the incumbent government (Cameron-Osborne team) and a change to the signature net migration target of 100,000 long-term migrants annually. This target, introduced by the Conservatives in 2010, has never been met despite significant policy and legislative efforts, a fact that has not been missed by the public.

In contrast, a narrow vote for Remain will be more likely to mean the balance of power lies with politicians who voted to Leave. This could also lead to changes as many of those decisionmakers hold migration views that are pro-market or generally liberal, but future scenarios are less clear.

Changing Migration Patterns

A key question is whether, under either the Leave or Remain scenario, migration patterns will change. The best available evidence suggests the underlying drivers of migration to the United Kingdom are not likely to change dramatically—absent major changes to the economy after Brexit—which means continued significant immigration, regardless of restrictions.

In the event of Leave, migration restrictions on EU migrants can be assumed. While the resulting impacts on migration patterns would be unclear, certain trends are likely. First, the reductions in migration may be substantial, but the United Kingdom will remain a country of high immigration. A conservative estimate is that the United Kingdom would continue to receive an inflow of 500,000 or more immigrants per year, with annual net migration above 200,000. What is more likely is a significant shift in terms of who comes and how they enter. The characteristics of EU nationals coming to the United Kingdom—assuming the PBS is applied—would change: the income and qualification requirements would reduce the migration of young workers and those with low qualifications, with disproportionate impact on Eastern European nationals. Workers would likely shift into other migration channels, as employers and immigrants rethink their options. For example, study migration from Europe might increase, especially if there are short-term opportunities to move to work upon graduation.

Second, irregular migration would probably increase in the short and longer term, most likely through visa overstays and from Eastern Europe. Market and network effects have repeatedly undermined immigration regulation in other countries that seek to restrict work and family flows, and the United Kingdom likely would be no different.

Third, there are likely to be short-term changes to mobility patterns—including a large spike in migration—as existing communities in the United Kingdom seek to secure the future of their families by sponsoring them for immigration. The cutoff date—mentioned above—would become hugely significant.

Finally, visa rights and access to services and benefits for British nationals seeking to emigrate to Europe could be severely circumscribed as the European Union would surely reciprocate restrictions made by the United Kingdom.

If Remain prevails, migration patterns are likely to continue their current trends. The Cameron deal will, under the consensus view of most independent observers, make little difference to EU migration flows. Consequently, the status quo—where there is high (in historic terms) net and gross migration—is likely to continue. The Office for Budget Responsibility and HM Treasury forecast net migration decreasing from its current rate of 324,000 to 185,000 by 2021, but note this is a conservative projection. In the shorter term, inflows above 600,000 per year—with annual net migration above 250,000—can be expected to continue.

In short, regardless of the Brexit referendum outcome, it is likely that substantial net migration to the United Kingdom will continue. The race is currently tight, and the only thing that is crystal clear is that the consequences of the vote will be substantial either way, at migration and other levels.

The author thanks Elizabeth Collett, Jake Lee, Madeleine Sumption, Michelle Mittelstadt, and Sunder Katwala for their comments.


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