What happens after Brexit is up to us. Why not open our borders to non-EU workers?

What happens after Brexit is up to us. Why not open our borders to non-EU workers?

chris bickerton

The Leave campaigns point out that quitting the EU would give the UK control over its border and immigration policy. They are right, says Chris Bickerton. It would be an opportunity to open Britain’s borders to anyone who wished to work here – not just European citizens. Brexit would be an opportunity for the UK to decide whether it wants to be a society that is open or hostile to immigration, and draw up its own laws accordingly.

If there is one issue most firmly tied to the Brexit mast, it is immigration. From Boris Johnson to Nigel Farage, supporters of the Leave campaigns have made it clear they want to use the UK’s exit from the UK as an opportunity to limit further immigration into the UK. Michael Gove’s dithering on whether the UK would seek to continue its membership of the EU’s Single Market turned on this point. When he realised Single Market membership and limiting the number of EU migrants coming to the UK was not possible, he opted to ditch the Single Market.

The overwhelming impression given by Brexiteers is one of a gung-ho rejection of Britain as an open and cosmopolitan society. Foreigners living in the UK experience the Leave campaigns as one long tirade against themselves. This has pushed many people flirting with a Brexit vote into the safer harbours of middle class cosmopolitanism. ‘Brexit, me? Of course not, I’m not a foreigner-hating little Englander’. A recent poster by DiEM25, the self-declared ‘pro-democracy movement’ founded by ex-Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, summed up this sentiment best: “If people like Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Nick Griffin and Marine Le Pen want Britain to leave the EU, where does that put you?”

There is a crucial gap between Brexit and any government policy on immigration. That gap is the democratic will of the British people. For all of the associations made between Brexit and immigration, there is no intrinsic or necessary link between the two. Brexit refers only to an exit from the EU and there are no specific policies of any kind tied to Brexit. What happens afterwards and how the UK chooses to manage its affairs in the light of an exit is up to the British government, which is ultimately answerable to its electorate.

The UK government could, for instance, choose to impose visa restrictions on non-UK EU nationals currently living in the UK. Romanians, Poles and Germans would have to face the hassle and cost of going through visa applications and regular renewals, of the kind experienced by US citizens currently living and working in the UK. In response to that, other EU member states may decide to retaliate and impose their own visa restrictions on British nationals travelling or living in another EU member state. This is the kind of doomsday scenario regularly hauled out by the Remain campaigners and the one that makes foreigners living in the UK feel uneasy about their future.

But the government could do something quite different. It could impose no such restrictions. It could even honour the spirit of the Single Market’s commitment to the free movement of people without the UK being a member of the Single Market. Brexit is, in fact, quite compatible with a defence of open borders, which is exactly my position. Open borders does not mean no borders. It means managed borders, where the rules governing the movement of people in and out are based on a principle of openness. Those who chose to come to the UK and make their life here are free to do so. However quixotic and alien this may sound to all those trumpeting an exit from the EU as way of closing our borders, the fact remains that Brexit is compatible with both open and closed borders. Which it will be depends on decisions made by an elected government.

Some, such as the Centre of European Reform’s Simon Tilford, have argued that we should remain in the EU in order to preserve the UK as a cosmopolitan and open society. This is a Faustian pact if ever there was one. We should not aim to preserve the policies we like at the expense of democracy, though this is the choice many liberals and people on the centre-left have made. Instead, we should use an exit from the EU as an opportunity to have a proper debate for the first time about whether we want the UK to be open to migration or not, and then base our laws on the outcome of that. If that means a more closed society hostile to immigrants, then so be it. The argument for a more open immigration policy will have been lost. But it could also be won. And implementing this policy willingly, as an expression of democratic will rather than reluctantly as an obligation of Single Market membership, makes all the world of difference.

This post originally appeared at BrexitVote.

About the Author

chris bickerton

Chris Bickerton is a lecturer in politics at Cambridge University and author of The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide, published with Penguin.

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May 27th, 2016|Brexit, Featured|5 Comments


  1. Gayle June 6, 2016 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    Dear Chris,

    I think membership of the single market is endangering our lives because terrorist groups, paedophiles, and other violent criminals are exploiting this to enter EU countries undetected so don’t you think that extending out our borders to non-EU countries will only make matters worse. I fear if that if we keep our borders open, we’ll end up with another Paris and another Brussels but this time, right on our own doorstep. The sooner we get out the EU and single market and impose visa and/or ESTA restrictions, the better and safer it will be for everyone. I’m truly scared that if we end up staying in the EU, I’m not going to live to see my kids grow up for the reasons I’ve given above.

  2. Martin Baldwin-Edwards May 30, 2016 at 8:19 pm - Reply

    There are so many unreasonable assumptions contained in the argumentation here, that it is difficult to take it seriously. First of all, no country in the history of the world has ever paid much attention to its electorate on the management of its immigration policy. There are many reasons for this, but the underlying one is that labour migration is a labour market issue that demands expertise and sectoral management. Without such, you will simply create a shortage of workers in specific sector, reduce production and increase wage inflation. The alternative outcome, actually observed, is that the State over-estimates the number of workers needed, allows them in, and finds that they are massively unemployed. This has happened with the GCC countries, who control their large immigrant communities with the same sort of foolish emotion as Brexiteers are showing, It also happened regularly with agricultural short-term labour in southern Europe: strawberry pickers were either absent (leading to rotten crops) or were so many that they couldn’t all be employed.

    Secondly, few countries experience solely immigration or emigration. The UK follows the general pattern of developed countries, with large flows both ways. In fact, the UK is the origin of the largest stock of highly skilled workers in the world. Crucially, managing immigration is a part of foreign policy — bilateral or multilateral deals with other countries. With about 2 million Brits in other EU countries, the policy choices for an independent UK would be determined to some extent by what other countries demand. If the UK did not concede to those demands, perhaps the 2 million Brits would suddenly have to return to the UK!

    Thirdly, claiming that it is simply a matter of deciding what to do about (for example) Romanians is a simplification ad absurdam. For a start, you could not negotiate only with Romania. If the UK did not reach a deal with the EU/EEA, then all Brits would be denied access to EEA territory even for vacation purposes, not to mention employment or retirement. So, the UK government has the technical capacity to engage in bilateral negotiations with all 28 EU countries, plus EFTA, plus most of the rest of the world (since these are covered by EU arrangements)? I don’t think so. Moreover, exactly the same problems would apply with trade — the need to negotiate with over a hundred countries, rapidly, unless you adopt the foolhardy approach of Minford and abolish all import controls and duties. Maybe he would suggest that for border controls too: anyone could enter, without visas or bilateral agreements!

    No, this whole argument is nothing more than hysterical populism — drummed up by the right of the Tory party. Best to keep away from such lunacy: it has nothing to offer sane people.

  3. Sri May 27, 2016 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    Dear Chris

    Great read…two things stand out … (1) the inversion of the liberal argument (2) immigration not as a “red herring” and therefore a reason to exit but immigration as a matter of sovereign policy choice and therefore on that account, a reason to exit.
    The key principle you point out “That gap is the democratic will of the British people.” is one that extends to matters beyond immigration, to aspects of economic policy choice in the best interest of the territorial inhabitants of Britain. This is not a nationalistic argument – the retention of sovereign choice is also a preservation of social fabric; a conscious decision that seeks the protection of social stability. If such a choice is deemed “insular”, in much the same way that the developing world was pilloried in the 1980s and 1990s for its insular approach to trade and investments, then such insularity is to be preferred to mindless “openness”

  4. S.lakshma reddy May 27, 2016 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    Your argument is more logical and democratically compatible as long as EU is not politically United federal or other similar structured state and as long as global federal state has not evolved consistent with global economic integration.

  5. IAS2016 May 27, 2016 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    Dear Chris,

    I agree with most of your sentiments.

    Firstly, it is worthwhile educating the public overall to inform that the “EU” and “Europe” are not one of the same. In fact, you can celebrate one without having the other. This is fundamental to discussion and argument because it suggests that by being “GREAT” Britain has always had the potential, and evidence-base, to “Lead” in terms of it capacity to be Bold, Ambitious, Innovative & Dynamic and to harvest a viable partnership with European countries in order to maintain trade, including new alternative partnership outside of Europe.

    Europe can do none of the above, if it maintains it current position and remains NEGATIVE and the Possibilities amid such changes.

    Many will feel it strange, like a business individual who is negative about what they can achieve in their role as a Leader and Director – similarly, is it not therefore absurd when we hear Cameron and Osborn telling the British public that “we are not good enough”, “we are not Bold enough” and “we are not Leaders”???

    This debate in this EU referendum should not be about “leaving” of “staying”, it SHOULD be about becoming “Leaders of Independence” and being forthright to draw-up a business plan telling the PUBLIC HOW WE CAN DO IT!

    Finally, there is a story missing here. The EU nurturing a “United States of Europe” where our armies and intelligence will ALL sit on site of the EU – controlled by the EU.

    Can British people, like the public of any other European Country, ever be able to hold their voted government to full account when the Laws that be are being influenced and made by that Country?

    Also, with 330,000 migrants entering into the EU (they may well be voting in the EU referendum – making it a strategic policy to encourage this rise by government) – how can any UK politician claim that this has no bearing or relationship on the “jobs” for British people, when it MUST!!

    How many British people really do go to work in other Europe countries when UK politicians continue to boast that the UK economy is STRONG, and employment opportunities are vast?? Is it the fact that British people want to be employed in the UK; want to establish themselves in the UK and want to prosper in the UK? ARE POLITICIANS AND POLICY REALLY DOING ENOUGH TO ENSURE THEY ARE ACHIEVING THIS GOALS?

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