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While the free movement of workers and people in the EU has worked in the UK’s interest on balance, in order to maintain public confidence in free movement, the rules on access to benefits must be re-written.
12 May 2012
EU-level immigration policy concerns two aspects:
On the whole, the UK’s retention of its own border controls and its discretion to opt in to EU laws in asylum and immigration law have so far limited the EU’s influence over UK immigration policy, while allowing Britain to take advantage of common EU measures when those are in its national interest.
The UK’s ‘pick and mix’ approach to cooperation in EU asylum policy now draws a healthy degree of cross-party consensus and should remain in place. At the moment, the UK’s participation in EU measures is largely limited to cooperation in the EU’s so-called ‘Dublin System’, which, in most cases, allows the UK to return asylum seekers to the member states in which they first arrived in the EU.
EU migration accounted for 27% of total UK net immigration in 2010 – a majority of which comes from the new Eastern European states which joined the EU in 2004.
While the overall impact of migration from other EU countries is inconclusive, it is clear that migration can have positive economic impacts on competitiveness in the UK as well as Europe as a whole. The evidence also overwhelmingly suggests that migrants from EU countries have come to the UK in search of work rather than to take advantage of the UK’s welfare system.
However, the impact of new EU immigration is most likely to have been felt at the low-skill end of the labour market, increasing competition for jobs amongst low-skilled and younger workers, while potentially lowering real wages. It has also put strains on public services in some areas due to a concentrated and sudden influx of migrants, while limiting the UK’s ability to control its own borders and cross-border crime.
Due to these side-effects, and the understandable impact they can have on public opinion, EU free movement needs to be handled with care and attention by politicians and policymakers. Unfortunately, recent errors of judgement by both the UK Government and the European Commission are only likely to undermine public confidence in free movement.
The previous government clearly underestimated the impact that EU enlargement would have on increasing net EU immigration flows, suggesting the net immigration of Eastern European migrants would range between only 5,000 and 13,000 a year. In fact, it averaged closer to 42,000 a year between 2004 and 2010. This is likely to have decreased public confidence in EU free movement.
The current legal dispute between the UK Government and the European Commission over the UK’s ‘right to reside’ test concerning EU nationals’ access to benefits is also likely to fuel public distrust of free movement and represents a public relations own goal for the Commission.
Open Europe recommends that the UK remain committed to free movement but, in order to keep an increasingly sceptical public on board, that the following reforms are pursued:
Domestic policies targeted at creating incentives for UK citizens to work and improving their skill levels is far more important than bearing down on EU free movement. Since 1998, at least three million new jobs were created in the UK but they have increasingly been filled by EU and non-EU workers. This is a UK problem, not an EU one.
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 Prospect Magazine, Think Tank of the Year Awards 2012, 11 July 2012