Gross inflow of EU-27 migration (excluding own citizens) per 1000 population in 2012

Although Switzerland and Norway are often cited as models the UK should follow outside the EU in terms of migration policy, Open Europe has found that both countries have far higher levels of EU immigration than the UK as a proportion of their populations.Source: Eurostat

November 2014

Would leaving the EU bring down the number of EU migrants moving to the UK?

Migration from other EU member states has shot to the top of the political agenda, with immigration and border control increasingly cited as the primary reasons for why the UK should leave the EU. Those advocating exit often mention Norway and Switzerland as models the UK should follow outside the EU.

However, in fact,  Norway and Switzerland have far higher levels of EU immigration than the UK as a proportion of their populations. These countries do operate under slightly different legal arrangements to the UK when it comes to EU migration. In practice, though, they are fully integrated into the EU’s free movement rules, and the EU has repeatedly made it clear that free movement of people is the price that must be paid for access to the single market.

Norway and Switzerland: The key figures

  • In 2012, proportionate to their populations, Switzerland accepted four and a half times more EU migrants than the UK in gross terms.
  • In 2012, all three European Economic Area (EEA) countries (Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland) accepted more EU migrants per head than the UK in gross terms.
  • In 2013, net EU immigration was just over four times higher in Switzerland than in the UK, proportionate to their populations. Net EU immigration to the UK would have been 393,503 higher if the UK had the same rate of EU net immigration as Switzerland.
  • In 2013, 15.6% of the Swiss population was born in an EU country. Meanwhile, only 4.2% of the UK population was born in another EU country. In 2013, all EEA countries had a higher percentage of EU-born populations than the UK.

In 2012, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office, gross EU immigration to Switzerland was 90,107. This amounts to a gross inflow of 11.33 EU migrants per 1,000 of Swiss population. In comparison, gross EU migration to the UK was higher in absolute terms (157,554), but that only works out as a rate of 2.48 EU migrants per 1,000 of its population. Norway, a member of the European Economic Area, also had a rate of gross EU immigration far higher than the UK, with 7.38 EU migrants per 1,000 of its population.

In other words, if the UK had the same rate of EU immigration per head as Switzerland in 2012, the gross inflow of EU migration would have been 719,248 rather than the actual figure of 157,554 – just over four and half times more.

Norway and Switzerland’s  EU immigration arrangements explained

Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but the bilateral Free Movement of Persons Agreement has removed restrictions on EU citizens wishing to live or work in Switzerland. The citizens of Bulgaria and Romania will remain subject to restrictions until 31 May 2016 at the latest. Croatians are currently subject to a quota system.

In a referendum in February 2014, the Swiss voted to introduce quotas on EU migrants from 2017. Such quotas would violate the terms of Switzerland’s free movement treaty with the EU. In fact, the EU has so far refused to agree to Swiss quotas for EU migrants and has threatened to suspend other EU-Swiss bilateral agreements with the country if Switzerland unilaterally imposes quotas. The EU-Swiss free movement treaty is linked to agreements on technical barriers to trade, public procurement, agriculture, transport, civil aviation, and research by a so-called ‘guillotine clause’. This means they can only take effect together, and if one of the agreements is terminated the other six would cease to apply.

In theory, Switzerland can unilaterally impose the quotas. However, this is likely to provoke retaliation from the EU – which could result in reduced market access to the EU for Swiss firms. Ultimately, migration and trade are closely bound together in the Swiss relationship with the EU.

Norway is also outside the EU, but is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). As such, Norway must apply the same free movement rules as EU member states, but has no vote on the rules. The EEA Agreement with the EU does include ‘safeguard measures’ allowing the parties to take “appropriate measures” if serious “economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist are arising”. In an extreme case, such measures may be used to limit EU migration – but could only be temporary.