3 February 2016

It’s fair to say that neither The Sun nor The Daily Mail were enamoured with the EU reform package tabled by Donald Tusk yesterday. Both have torn into the proposed deal and, while both touch on the other issues at stake – bureaucracy, accountability, and sovereignty – the motivation in both cases appears to be that their demands on immigration have not been met.

The Sun leader’s central argument, repeated several times, is that only “full, permanent border controls, with Britain choosing how many people come in” would do. Meanwhile, The Daily Mail argues that “hardly anything in this deal will do one iota to stop mass immigration from inside or outside the EU.”

These newspapers’ views on this issue have been well known for some time, but it is hard to see how any package realistically could have satisfied them on this issue.

It’s not clear that either side can offer dramatic reductions to immigration and ‘full control’?

It has been clear from very early on in the renegotiation process that fundamentally altering free movement of people across the EU (i.e. Britain choosing how many could come in) was not an option that other states could ever entertain. But this does not mean that the system cannot be reformed or made fairer (see below).

The Leave campaigns have so far been unwilling to set out which model of post-Brexit EU cooperation they want to see, so we are left with the existing precedents – be it Norway or Switzerland’s highly integrated models or those states with a more straightforward free trade agreement with the EU. What these tell us is that there is no existing model for relations with the EU which combines anything like the market access UK exporters are used to with ‘ultimate’ control over immigration. The issue of immigration and any future trade relationship with the EU are necessarily bound together to some extent.

So, when it comes to immigration, it is not just as simple as leaving. Migration Watch have estimated that leaving the EU could reduce net migration into the UK by around 100,000, still leaving it well above the government’s ‘tens of thousands’ target and that is without accommodating the desire of some on the Leave side to see  higher migration from the Commonwealth to compensate.

The issue of ‘border control’ is a red herring because, outside the passport-free Schengen area, the UK can apply controls at its border – and elements of the proposed reform package would actually further enable it to do so.

If agreed, this would be first time EU free movement law was reversed rather than extended

If agreed – which is not a foregone conclusion – there are several different elements to the package when it comes to migration, all involving significant amendments to free movement law, which would, for the first time, roll back the process of EU integration in this area, rather than extend it.

Firstly, there are measures to prevent abuse of free movement and give national governments greater powers to restrict access to individual EU nationals deemed a threat. The Commission has committed to change the rules to enable governments to refuse entry to individuals even in the absence of a previous criminal conviction or on preventative grounds. There would also be greater national control over the admission of non-EU family members. According to reports, these measures could be potentially important in getting Theresa May to back the case for Remain.

Secondly, on benefits, while David Cameron has not got everything he was seeking, the proposal would recognise, albeit in a more roundabout way than he probably would have liked, that the free movement of people should not mean instant access to the UK’s universal benefits system. It would establish a contributory principle, which the public feels strongly about, and remove the perverse incentives created by the wildly different benefit systems that exist across the EU.

So, no, this deal will not satisfy those who want ‘complete control’ over immigration – and it’s not clear whether that is something the Leave side could credibly offer either – but for the majority of swing voters, who are largely Eurosceptic and have concerns about immigration but are nervous about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the jury is out. It will be up to those on either side of the campaign to convince them.