Expert View

4 ways we can control migration without quitting EU

by Richard Corbett | 03.11.2017

Richard Corbett MEP is leader of the Labour Party in the European Parliament.

Not only is it possible to respond to voters’ concerns about migration without leaving the EU’s vast single market and so damaging the economy. Quitting the EU would also involve some loss of control.

Here’s what we could do from inside the EU – and what we’d lose by leaving.

Migration from outside the EU

Most immigration to Britain is from outside the EU. This is entirely under UK, not EU, rules. Britain is free to adjust those rules as it sees fit. And many of the public’s biggest concerns about immigration are actually about non-EU migrants who are, rightly or wrongly, more often associated in the public mind with fears about security, cultural change in our communities, and so on.

Free movement is not an unconditional right

When it comes to EU freedom of movement, this is not an unconditional right. There are conditions that Britain could start enforcing if it chose, such as the need for EU migrants to have a job after a reasonable period of time, normally considered to be three months, or be self-sufficient and not a burden on the public exchequer.

Other EU Member States ask thousands of people to leave their country every year. It is Britain’s failure to use such safeguards to the full and, where appropriate, send back those with no right to remain, which created the impression that free movement is a free-for-all.

Action at home

We can also change many national policies, for instance: train more nurses ourselves; ban companies from only advertising job vacancies abroad and not locally; deport serious criminals; reinstate the Labour government’s migration impact fund (which transferred part of the surplus the Treasury makes from migrants to local authorities with extra needs arising from migration); and take measures to prevent undercutting of UK wages (and exploitation of EU nationals by abusive employers).

Benefit tourism

One public concern is about allegations of benefit tourism, despite there being little evidence of such. Under EU rules, there is no obligation to pay benefits classified as social assistance (like housing benefit and income support) to recent migrants who do not have a job. The obligation to do so for social security benefits (like child benefit, invalidity benefit or contribution-based Jobseekers’ Allowance) only applies if someone passes the habitual residence test (which requires having resided in the UK for an “appreciable period” and having a settled intention to remain). Britain could, if it so wished, classify more benefits in the former category (social assistance) and review its rules on habitual residence.

In 2015, the EU Court of Justice ruled that a country is entitled to withhold basic benefits from EU migrants if they have come with no intention of finding a job. EU law gives incomers no right to jump queues for social housing. EU law gives migrants no right to just pitch up in the UK and claim unemployment benefits. Such rules could be made clearer and applied.

Three ways we could lose control

What’s more, if we leave the EU we could actually lose control of our border in three ways.

  • We will be less likely to be able to keep our checkpoint on our most vulnerable entry point at Calais rather than Dover.
  • We may no longer have full access to the Europol and Schengen databases allowing us to check criminal records and fingerprints of suspicious cases seeking entry.
  • We will drop out of the “Dublin” rules whereby EU countries agreed that refugees should request asylum in the first EU country they arrive in. Britain has sent over 12,000 asylum seekers back to the first EU country they arrived in. The loss of this facility is presumably not what Leave voters had in mind.

Even if immigration levels should be reduced over time, they cannot be slashed overnight, whether in or out of the EU. If companies cannot get access in the UK to the workforce they need, they will simply move abroad, reducing job opportunities for British workers. We would then have to pay more tax because, overall, immigrants pay far more in taxes than they take out in benefits.

And the queue for healthcare would be longer not shorter, because the NHS currently depends on immigrant doctors and other skilled migrant workers. EU nurses are already turning their back on the UK – there’s an 89% drop in new registrations and a 67% jump in those quitting the register – and that’s before we’ve even left.

All things considered, Brexit, or even just leaving the single market, is not a price worth paying to be able to do things that we could do anyway.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    4 Responses to “4 ways we can control migration without quitting EU”

    • It is a tragedy that Mr Corbett cannot convince the leader of his party in Westminster of the truth concerning the EU rules on Freedom of Movement. More generally Mr Corbett’s explanation of these rules should be required reading for the editors of the Daiy Mail, Daily Express, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph.

    • If, as now seems inevitable, UK does leave the EU in March ‘19, there are ways of limiting freedom of movement without giving it up for all time and losing the freedom for U.K. citizens (and particularly young people) to live love and work anywhere they like in the European economic area.
      We could and should rejoin EFTA, the European free trade association we ourselves founded back in 1960 as an alternative to the EEC, as it was then. EFTA thrives today. All four members have significantly higher GDP per head than does U.K. it has trade agreements with third countries all over the world, whereas on the day we leave the EU we will have none.
      Renewed EFTA membership would be our gateway to remain in the EEA, and therefore the single market, when we leave the EU. Of course, we would have to retain freedom of movement in principle, but as Richard points out, that does not mean we would not have some controls, just as we do if we remain in the EU itself.
      As non-EU members of the EEA, we would also in principle be able to make use of the “safeguard clause” (EEA Article 112) which enables EEA members to apply an “emergency brake” on freedom of movement where a case can be made. This is the provision which David Cameron sought but was unable to secure as a continuing member of EU in February 2016 (he settled for further limits on benefits to migrants, which was not really the issue).
      Of course, even as a non-EU member, we could not use article 112 unilaterally, as only tiny Liechtenstein has done (in 1997), as we would need to secure continued membership of the single market. U.K. would, however, be in a much stronger position in the negotiations if we were approaching them as a continuing member of EEA. If there is a case for limits on free movement (arguable, as it is a clear net benefit to U.K. in economic terms), surely it would be better to introduce time-limited and targeted controls agreed with the Commission.
      This government foolishly ruled out the EEA option before negotiations even began, not on the basis of any studies but largely as a result of Mrs May’s Chief of Staff, who wrote the Lancaster House speech in January without proper advice and by-passing the usual input of civil servants. Although he has since had to stand down, the Lancaster House speech remains the basis of this government’s negotiating position on article 50.
      EEA membership can never be a substitute for EU membership. We would have lost our political influence in Europe. In particular, we would no longer elect members of the European Parliament. But those who supported the remain campaign may need to adjust to the fact that once we leave the EU (and there is little we can now do to stop Article 50 from running its course), we will have lost that political influence anyway, whatever our future relationship with the EU.
      Continued EEA membership is not only the Brexit option which does least damage to our trading economy; it is the only option which in practice can enable a relatively open EU external border to be retained in Ireland (as it is between Sweden and Norway); it is also the only Brexit option which protects the existing treaty rights of EU citizens living here as well as of U.K. citizens living elsewhere in EU.
      The EEA is not, as this government sometimes suggests, “remaining in the EU by the back door” : Norway and Iceland are not half-members of the EU, they are outside it. The EEA is an arrangement between EFTA and the EU which gives each unfettered access to each others’ market – hence the “single market”.
      The EEA was set up in part as a transition arrangement for countries then intending to join the EU. It will serve well as an “off the shelf” transition arrangement for U.K. on leaving the EU. This government is in “fantasy land” in believing that a “bespoke” transition arrangement, designed just for U.K., can be agreed as part of phase 2 of the negotiations: we would have to agree what we are transitioning to before we could even start to design a bespoke arrangement, and with the start of phase 2 already delayed, there will be no time.
      The fact that the EEA relationship is “off the shelf” should be seen as an advantage, since being based on the well-established Norway / Iceland model means we know it is acceptable in principle to the EU27. It is not likely to be vetoed at the last minute by the European Parliament, nor will other WTO members contest it once it comes into force.
      As CBI has pointed out, “It is vital for British business to avoid a regulatory “cliff-edge”, where UK trade with EU suddenly defaults to a WTO framework, implying a return of tariffs and a host of other barriers to trade. The simplest way of achieving this bridge to a new relationship with the EU, will be … to agree that the UK should remain in the EU single market … until a new deal is in force.”
      That is now the policy of all the opposition parties in the House and is supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs who recognise the continuing importance of single market membership to the U.K. economy.
      Now that this is the coherent policy of the Labour Party, it would take only about 15 Conservative MPs (allowing for Labour rebels) to defeat the government on amendments to the Withdrawal Bill which could get force this government to change its negotiating strategy. They can even do so under the FTPA without causing a general election.
      The UKIP wing of the Conservative party, which is driven largely by “immigration” and at present has a stranglehold over its policy on EU relations, could be returned to its proper place on the fringes of British politics.

    • Peter Fane, what an outstanding comment! I found your observations and insights extraordinarily helpful and hope that it can get wider circulation . . .