Gove scaremongers on migration free-for-all

by Jack Schickler | 25.04.2016

Michael Gove attempted to bring the Brexit debate back to migration today. In a Times article, he argues that the EU has launched a “free-for-all” by inviting Turkey to join. He worries that “public services such as the NHS will face an unquantifiable strain”.

In fact, EU migrants contribute to the economy and public purse, and support the NHS – while Gove’s suggestion on Turkey is little more than scaremongering.

Turkey has been on the waiting list for EU membership since 1987, and won’t join for ages, if at all. The UK, as well as every other EU country, could veto it joining. With right-wing nationalist parties in power in Poland and Hungary, not to mention rising euroscepticism in France, Germany and pretty much everywhere else, the idea that Turkey could sail into the EU is fanciful.

Migration benefits NHS and economy

Gove’s concern on the NHS is also misplaced. Migrants stop the NHS from flatlining. They pay more in taxes than they take in welfare, and are younger and healthier than native Brits. EU nationals also provide 4.5% of the NHS’s workforce, including 6% of nurses and health visitors and nearly 9% of doctors – not to mention less skilled labour such as carers and cleaners.

The justice secretary is also wrong to suggest that money saved from our EU budget contribution could be redeployed to save the NHS. Not only do we send Brussels less money than he says; quitting the EU could cause so much economic damage that the Treasury’s tax take would fall, meaning there would be less money for health and other priorities. The government’s estimate of an annual £36 billion fiscal “black hole” by 2030 seems in the right ballpark.

Migrants benefit our economy beyond the NHS. Sectors from digital technology to financial services to fruit picking cite access to a wide labour pool as a benefit of EU membership.

What does Brexit mean?

Net migration was 323,000 in the year to September 2015. Leaving the EU would, in theory, allow us to cut this number. But given that net migration from outside the EU was 191,000, there’s a limit to how much we could reduce it. Pressure group Migration Watch has suggested that, if we applied the same system to EU citizens as we now apply to non-EU citizens, we would cut net migration by 100,000.

But the Leave camp is actually implying that Brexit would allow us to increase high-skilled migration from elsewhere. If that is so, the drop in migration would be less than 100,000.

What’s more, a policy of restraining EU migration would have a big cost. First, it would almost certainly mean we would lose some access to the EU for our goods and services. No country has full access without agreeing to free movement of people.

Second, cutting migration could lead to a fall in productivity growth. Migration equivalent to 1% of the working age population boosts productivity by 0.4-0.5%, according to Jonathan Portes of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research.

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Third, free movement is a two-way street. 1.2 million Brits live abroad within the EU, not to mention seasonal or temporary visitors. While those Brits would not be deported, they are unlikely to enjoy the full range of current rights, and the arrangement is likely to be reciprocal with whatever we offer EU migrants to the UK.

Finally, putting an end to free movement could lead to the imposition of controls at the Irish border, which has been passport-free for nearly a century. That would be bad for the Northern Ireland economy, and the peace process.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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