Heresy

If there was one subject that dominated the referendum campaign, it was immigration. It’s a hot potato – to say the least – and it arouses some passionate views. But my whole blog has always been about listening to all sides of an argument and trying to tease out some truth and, if possible, a potential way forward. With that as a principle, I have to admit something:

I’ve changed my mind.

Don’t get me wrong – I still believe Leaving the European Union is an amazingly bad idea – principally for economic reasons; but I have listened to all sides on immigration and I have to concede that those on the Leave side have made a number of very valid points. As have the Remain side.

Now I know that there are plenty of people who are going to be mad at me. I can see some who will cry: “You can’t say that!” or “You can’t truly believe it.” In fact, I’ve already been told that “Immigration is good and we need to explain it and defend it better.” Unfortunately, though, that often comes across simply as “Let me explain why your opinions and feelings are wrong.” Even if you can get past the offensive nature of that approach, it’s talking at people rather than listening to them. And that really doesn’t help.

I think you can probably now see why I called this article “Heresy”. It sometimes seems that if you supported Remain you have to say immigration is always a good thing and never deviate from that line. But that idea is something I previously tackled in “Being Right” where mindless polarisation just becomes destructive. The truth of immigration – and indeed most things – is more nuanced and both sides really can be right at the same time.

The Problems

Overall, I still believe immigration is a good thing; but it has also raised serious issues, caused many localised problems and has the potential to cause more on a much wider scale. To just ignore these concerns – and especially the people who have raised them – is, at best, arrogant and, at worst, folly. People who aren’t listened to rapidly lose faith in the political process. That never ends well.

Immigration is good for the economy and trade; it’s good for scientific collaboration and alliances, and it does slowly enhance the breadth of our culture; but we don’t live in these abstract ideas. While they are true and help us in many ways; we live in individual communities around the land – and some of those communities have been hurt.

Local Strain

In my personal experience of the NHS, the only migrants I saw were Doctors and Nurses. But I’m not conceited enough to believe that this is necessarily the same everywhere. Any large change in the population of an area will put strain on resources; but our systems are geared up to be able to cope with gradual change. One of the issues with immigration – especially when it is concentrated – is that the needs of an area can increase far more rapidly than existing systems can respond to. And for people living in such areas, they can see immigration hurting their local services.

But it is only part of the picture. Nationally, is immigration overwhelming our NHS? No, definitely not. Is it in some specific areas? Quite possibly. Does immigration benefit the country economically? Yes, definitely; but if all the benefit is going to central government and yet the local community is stuck with the same resources as before – it sure as hell doesn’t feel like that!

And if you live in one of those areas that has experienced this, being told by someone in a different area that you are a racist because you raised the issue… Well, it’s not surprising that the campaign polarised the country.

Wages

Yes, immigration does produce some downward pressure on wages. That is an unavoidable issue. But one of the reasons for immigrants coming in is that locals sometimes won’t do the jobs on offer. Far from always – but it is important to remember that there are two sides to this; even though that doesn’t detract from the real issue.

However, practices such as “posting” where the workers are employed in one state at its wage rates and then sent to work in a different country as sub-contractors is scandalous. It effectively allows employers to import wage levels and employment conditions from other countries and that definitely drives down local wages. But again, we’ve come to believe it’s all against the UK whereas many other EU states (France and Germany spring to mind) are equally concerned and want to end this process.

Minority in your own country

Under the current Freedom of Movement, there are no restrictions on European citizens moving and settling in another member state. But let’s think about what that could mean for a minute.

If half of one percent of the German population (420,000 people) got sick of the North European climate they could all decide to emigrate to Malta. If they did, that would more than double the population of the island, completely change its culture, make the Maltese a minority in their own country and cause massive strain on all its services. And, at the moment, there is nothing that the Maltese government could legally do about it.

I don’t for a second think that the above situation is about to happen; but the truth is: it could. Without some form of limit, such a possibility is always there and, because it is, the idea is fertile ground for anti-immigration rabble rousing.

Moving to a new country and integrating there is fine; but en masse migrants could become colonists with no intention of integrating or respecting the local traditions. Europe’s beauty is in its diversity and I think we all want to respect that. In fact it’s stated in the treaties (6th para); but it takes time to integrate and for services to adapt.

Remain supporters often noted after the referendum that the areas with the highest immigration voted strongly for Remain. That’s true – but they were established integrated immigrants. The areas which have seen the most recent and rapid levels of immigration – the ones that are harder to integrate and that can put pressure on services – they mostly voted to Leave.

So what can we do?

Dealing with this issues will always be a challenge; but Brexit would just make it worse. Yes, it could impose extra restrictions and stop that local extra demand on resources; but by hurting the economy it takes away resources overall. The question is more why the extra economic benefits from immigration – especially extra tax revenue – aren’t being given back to the communities that need them. And that’s a question for our own government.

For some, losing those resources is a price worth paying for Brexit; but I would say those people often have other agendas. Economically, more people here looking for wages does push wages down; but if investment dried up – say the car factories were denied access to single market for their cars and so left with all those jobs lost – how does that compare with a slight pressure on wages?

So it’s a real concern – but the concern is best addressed by economic growth and investment; not Brexit. Leaving the EU to achieve this is the biggest false economy ever. Governments taking action to share the benefits they receive from immigration would be a good start, though, that would help the communities in quesiton.

Emergency Brake

Freedom of Movement worked brilliantly for many many years – opening up all of Europe to young and old alike. But if too many come into (or out of) any country too quickly, it causes very practical problems. So there needs to be a backstop – a brake that can be applied to slow the process.

In this sense, it would be like the Schengen free travel area. Internal borders were removed; but they can exceptionally be reapplied under considerations of public policy or internal security (Chapter II). Similarly, the Freedom of Movement could have a limit. When net EU immigration (or emigration as big population movements away can also cause problems) hits a certain level, a member state can – if they wish – impose restrictions until the annual total of immigration has come down below that level.

And of course it would be optional. If that state decides to keep taking people in, then of course it can. This is solely a backstop that allows the government of a member state to apply a temporary brake so that it can cope. But the principle of Freedom of Movement stands.

Migration Transition Fund

Rapid immigration and emigration in areas can cause problems and member state governments have not been brilliant in adapting to that. If all the people of the Union benefit from this right, it therefore makes sense that all the people of the Union help to ease the problems raised. I would therefore suggest a European Migration Transition fund to help with the issues.

Ultimately, any state and community needs to stand on its own two feet; but, as discussed earlier, so many of the problems are because of the transition and the speed of the changes. These require extra resources and so I would say it makes sense to establish a fund to provide those. Then locals would not be disadvantaged.

Conclusion

Immigration has affected all the member states of the European Union – though some more than others – and the rules were written in another time. The world is different now with different challenges and the EU needs to adapt.

The principle of Freedom of Movement should be preserved; but even the Treaties recognise that it needs to be done “…in conjunction with appropriate measures with respect to… immigration…” (2nd Para). With the genuine problems faced by all member states today, such appropriate measures need to be taken.

In some areas in several states, immigration has become a genuine problem. In fact, it has been for many years and no one was listening – so we’ve seen the rise of the parties that have listened. But Brexit is the wrong solution for the UK.

It will hurt the economy, meaning even less resources to make good our services. It will drive away investment meaning less jobs and then even worse pressure on wages. And it will alienate other states who could have helped us tackle the much bigger problems of places like Syria.

So we should stay – in the single market at the very least – but these issues need to be honestly addressed. This is just one proposal; but something finally needs to be done for the benefit of all European states. And all politicians need to start thinking about making some of these tough decisions. The issue will not go away.

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