Britain could have used the powers the EU gives it to remove EU migrants who were not working, studying or self-sufficient, writes Louis Carserides. It could even have cracked down on benefit payments in order to reassure those worried about the ‘costs’ of migration. But a lack of political will, as well as a desire to scapegoat the EU, meant that immigration became an open goal for Brexiteers.
Despite what some might say, the fact is that for many Brexit voters (note, not all), immigration was at the heart of the EU referendum. My intention is not to lambast those who voted to Leave as “take back control” racists, as some Remain supporters have done. It’s not fair, it’s dangerous and it’s polarising. However, Natcen research which surveyed nearly 3,000 British people shows that nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of those who are worried about immigration voted Leave.
It is safe to say, then, that through the prism of the unrestricted movement of EU nationals into the UK, immigration was and is a cause of anxiety for many. And it is perfectly legitimate to raise genuine concerns about what immigration can mean for local communities, social infrastructure (at a time when the government fails to invest in it), and its impact on local wages in certain sectors.
The liberal ideal was one where goods and people could seamlessly flow across borders. Language would be shared, knowledge and insights imparted, and skills pooled. However, immigration – despite its benefits – has caused a degree of unease for many people. During a time of chronic social housing shortages, wage stagnation and a lack of high-skilled jobs, communities are not always coming together, but dividing; skills are not always being pooled, but pitted against each other; and languages not shared, but viewed as a marker of difference.
The EU referendum offered people an opportunity to voice their unease at the status quo. Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade, told people that coming to a free trade agreement with the EU should be ‘one of the easiest in human history’; John Redwood MP said getting out of the EU can be ‘quick and easy’ as ‘the UK holds most of the cards’; and Boris Johnson said it would save people money and let them take back control.
The problem is people have been lied to since day one. The truth is that the UK never lost control. The unrestricted free movement of people was a domestic choice, not an instruction dictated to us by Brussels. Millions of people have wrongly diagnosed Brexit as a way to tackle immigration, when the reality is we can stay in the EU while addressing people’s concerns about immigration – with a ‘hard remain’.
According to EU law, no EU citizen has a fundamental nor unlimited right to move freely across Europe. To be lawfully resident in another EU Member State, European citizens need to be working, studying or able to prove they are self-sufficient. Otherwise they can be removed.
Admittedly the caveat here is that if someone is working, they have a right to be here. That’s true. But the British public have consistently demonstrated that they support immigration of highly skilled workers making a genuine contribution and paying their taxes. Skilled migrants are needed and have always been welcomed. However, polls also show that British people worry about people entering the country without jobs and claiming benefits. Yet in early June 2016 the European Court of Justice confirmed the right of Member States to refuse supplementary pensions, unemployment and child benefit to non-working EU migrants. Nigel Farage and co would have people believe that Brussels had been forcing governments to cough up millions in benefits, when the EU actually imposed restrictions around access to benefits for EU migrants.
Consecutive British governments made the conscious decision not to enforce these rulings, rather than the EU taking that control away from them. They did this because they couldn’t be bothered to face up to the political challenge, nor invest the money for an identity card system and monitoring system for new migrants. It was easier for domestic governments to simply blame the EU for their failures.
One of the most shocking moments of the referendum campaign was Ukip’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster, which was not just deceitful but will forever be an embarrassment to British politics. But even if Turkey did join the EU – which is almost unthinkable – older EU countries, like the UK, have the right to exercise “transitional arrangements” on new Member States who join the EU. Interestingly, the UK was one of only three ‘old’ Member States that chose to give citizens of the A8 countries full access to its labour market when those countries joined the EU in 2004.
For most people who voted Leave, immigration was a key issue in their decision – because they were misled into thinking the UK had no control of its borders. As a result, we have spent hundreds of millions of pounds and human resources trying to negotiate a deal that could make millions of people worse off. The sad truth is that we already have control – we just chose not to exercise it.
UK governments didn’t want to exercise those powers because of a combination of a lack of political will and the ease in which they could use the EU as a scapegoat for their failings. A “hard remain” would see the government mandated to actually exercise the power and controls it has always had.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
Louis Carserides (@louiscarserides) works for a Labour MP and is responsible for policy engagement and development with a particular focus on Brexit. He completed his MSc in Social Policy (Research) at the LSE.