A question of control
Steven Hunter, 2016

The immigration debate today is typically framed by two deeply opposing and passionately held views. Immigration is either the cure, or cause of all society’s ills. Both are clearly wrong, immigration is a matter of degree and control. Yet amongst the political elites, a decade of broad consensus that immigration is always a good thing has now been tested and found wanting. It led to the rise of UKIP in the UK, far right parties across Europe, and it may yet decide this referendum.

Of course, immigration can be beneficial. Many concerns about immigration are completely ill founded. Immigration has been demonstrated to marginally encourage rather than stifle economic growth. Not only do immigrants bring an influx of skills and talents that are essential for the maintenance of public services and private sector innovation in the UK, but they also place a smaller demand upon the state that those who had the good fortune to be born here. Benefit tourism is a complete misnomer, peddled for political purposes as an easy soundbite to misinformed voters.

So if immigrants claim fewer benefits than the locals, diversify the skillset of the population and are a net good for the economy, why would we want to place any limits upon their numbers at all? The answer is moderation. Immigration does have negative impacts, generally upon localized geographies and social groups.

Unfortunately those who are the least likely to suffer from the negative consequences of unfettered immigration are usually the first people to say that migrants don’t cost British jobs or put pressure on local wages. What they really mean is immigration won’t reduce their job opportunities or their wages. It is unskilled workers in towns already saturated with cheap labour that have typically felt the squeeze of increased competition in the job market not the comfortable middle class, ivory tower academics or political elite. Economics 101 tells you that if you increase the supply of labour in a short period of time without a corresponding increase in available jobs, competition will increase or wages will be driven down. Most recently a Bank of England study confirmed “the biggest effect is in the semi/unskilled services sector, where a 10 percentage point rise in the proportion of immigrants is associated with a 2 percent reduction in pay.”

I always find it baffling when advocates of liberal border controls simply refuse to accept that immigration cannot be unlimited. Similarly, it is appalling to think that there are those who would completely pull up the drawbridge and reject asylum seekers and children fleeing war.

Once you actually get past the bluster and vitriol of both sides, in the end we tend towards the common ground that immigration cannot be unlimited or completed prohibited. Striking the right balance is where our efforts should be focused. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem, within the EU there is no limit, there is no balance, just one central principle: the free movement of people. That’s not going to change and it’s a real problem.

Essentially the free movement of people means anyone with EU residency is entitled to enter and remain in the UK unhindered. When the principle was conceived, the EU was a much smaller and more homogenous economic area, meaning that large migration flows from Germany to the United Kingdom (or vice-a-versa) were never contemplated, nor did they happen. There have always been economic imbalances between countries but their magnitude was never sufficiently great to cause anything other than a trickle of two way flows. That makes sense, after all, moving country and leaving your family, friends and a secure job is a huge risk, why do it for a marginal reward? Since the accession of Eastern European countries to the Union, this dynamic has changed. Now there is a significant mismatch in GDP per capita, economic prospects and quality of life amongst the 28 member states. For example the average yearly wage in Romania is c. £4,500, that’s versus £27,000 in the UK, the disparity is even greater if you compare the minimum wage (8-9x higher in the UK than Romania, before the impact of the living wage). Unemployment in the UK is c. 5%, in many Southern European countries it is north of 10%, and as high as 50% for young people in Greece. Quite understandably those who can command a far higher wage for their labour by moving to the UK have done so in the past and will continue to do so, perhaps to an even greater extent in the future.

I really hope immigration does not decide the answer to the Brexit referendum. Primarily because I think there are far better arguments on economic, political and democratic grounds, but also because immigration can be invoked to stir up racial tensions, encourage intolerance and spread fear through misinformation. All too often the debate is framed as us and them. That’s clearly wrong.

Ultimately, the real questions you must ask yourself when you vote on Thursday are a) do you think there should be an upper limit placed on the level of migration, and b) should the UK be able to set it? The answer to both of those questions for me is yes. Within the EU, the answer is and always will be no.

Steven Hunter