Blair plunges into migration minefield

by Luke Lythgoe | 12.09.2017

Tony Blair spent the weekend arguing for a future migration policy that both satisfies leavers and keeps the UK in the EU. The former prime minister is right to say that there is much we can do to control migration without quitting the EU. However, he risked raising expectations unrealistically and giving populists too much credit.

A few proposals set out in a report by Blair’s think-tank can already be implemented under EU law. For example, registering EU workers and expelling inactive migrants with no right to stay is common practice in Belgium. The UK might also be able to persuade the EU to let us do what it agreed with David Cameron in his ill-fated renegotiation deal – especially limiting the amount of child benefit paid to children living in another country where the cost of living is lower.

Some of Blair’s proposals also go with the grain of what’s happening in EU policy right now. Tightening up the so-called Posted Workers Directive – which allows firms to post workers in other EU countries but undercut existing workers by paying substantially less than the prevailing local wage – is a key aim of Emmanuel Macron. We should certainly back the French president over this.

However, other proposals – especially those that involve preferential treatment for British citizens or discrimination against EU citizens from elsewhere – don’t seem that achievable. For example, setting higher tuition fees for EU students would clash with current EU rules and values. Meanwhile, stopping EU citizens entering Britain unless they have a job offer would come up hard against EU case law.

The report is also favourable towards an “emergency brake” allowing the UK to stop the flow of migrants or paying them benefits if certain locations or industries are under too much strain. Cameron only managed to get a brake on the fairly technical issue of migrants’ rights to “in-work benefits”, but Blair seems to think EU leaders will be more amenable now “post the Brexit vote”.

There’s certainly something in the idea that the EU may treat the UK as a prodigal son if it decides to stay in the EU and kill a fatted calf to celebrate. But it may be too much to expect that it will tolerate such an emergency brake.

The broader risk of Blair pitching new migration controls is that it gives populists’ anti-immigration fixation too much credit. Although his report looked extensively at the benefits of EU migration, Blair’s interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr focused on public anxieties and restricting immigration.

The downward pressure on wages, mentioned several times by Blair in his Marr interview, is small and limited to a narrow section of the workforce. Brexiters have been playing up the impact of migration on the wages of low-skilled workers since before the referendum – but the economic fallout from a hard Brexit would hit British workers much harder. What’s more, the minor impact on wages is dwarfed by the long-term benefits EU migration has brought the UK economy in the form of tax receipts, investment, staffing of key industries, creation of new businesses and jobs, as well as numerous cultural benefits.

Our own government should be ensuring that the benefits of EU migration are fairly distributed across the population. Among other things, this means making sure there are enough schools, homes and health care in areas which have seen a sudden influx of EU migrants. It also means cracking down on abuses of our employment laws, including failure to pay the minimum wage. And, yes, it means tightening up the rules on EU free movement insofar as we are able to. This is the argument pro-Europeans should be making.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    2 Responses to “Blair plunges into migration minefield”

    • Mr Blair’s report says EU nationals should already have an offer of work when they arrive and says those who did not earn permission to stay would be banned from opening a bank account, renting a home or claiming benefits.

      That would be a complete Non-starter under EU rules, and rightly so. Claiming UK benefits is one thing, but a ban on EU nationals renting a home or opening a bank account would be completly intolerable.