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Analysis

Did May just cave over taking back control of migration?

by Luke Lythgoe | 05.03.2018

“Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe. And that is what we will deliver.” Or at least that is what Theresa May said she was going to deliver in her Lancaster House speech back in January 2017.

Now the prime minister has admitted on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that our future migration policy is something “we’ll negotiate with the EU”. This follows months of kicking the immigration can ever further down the road, as it becomes increasingly clear a tough immigration policy is incompatible with the kind of economic partnership May believes she can strike with the EU.

The prime minister acknowledges that “many people” voted to set our own rules for who can come into the country in the 2016 referendum. But she doesn’t seem to think that is at odds with negotiating those rules with Brussels.

The groundwork for this latest u-turn was laid in May’s latest Brexit speech at Mansion House. She said she was “open to discussing how to facilitate… valuable links” between the EU and UK which allow citizens on both sides of the Channel work and study in each others’ countries. This exchange helps “shape and drive growth, innovation and enterprise” and allowed businesses to “attract and employ the people they need”.

This information will be no surprise to pro-Europeans. May appears to be recognising that free movement is largely beneficial for the UK and British public. EU citizens help keep our economy running, staff our hospitals and other public services, and add to Britain’s “cultural and social fabric” (again, May’s words). We’ve already seen some of the disruption that plunging EU net migration is causing – the number of EU nurses registering to work in Britain has dropped 96% since the Brexit vote. The prime minister is also clear that it is important for UK citizens to be able to go abroad to work and study. Many young voters in particular will agree.

Of course, high levels of migration will put pressure on local communities if not managed correctly. But there are plenty of ways to do that without leaving the EU and trashing our economy. This was never properly explained during the referendum, as it was buried under the Brexiters’ anti-immigrant scaremongering. As the reality on this dominant issue becomes clearer, people have the right to reconsider whether we should be leaving the EU at all.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon