Theresa May has made migration central to her currently rather hazy Brexit vision. Up to now we’ve only had ambiguous remarks, media speculation and the promise of a consultation in the summer. But now she’s called a snap general election, the prime minister must give voters something more solid before she gets a carte blanche to pursue her Brexit path.
The big question remains: how do you cut off EU migration without nose-diving the economy? The government’s answer increasingly appears to be that you don’t, with ministers hinting they will protect all sorts of industries from losing their European workforces.
The latest example is a suggestion for two-year fixed visas for young Europeans to fill low-skilled jobs. These “barista visas”, as The Sun dubbed them, would maintain the necessary flow of EU workers into those industries which rely on them, such as hospitality, construction and social care. Similar to the Youth Mobility Scheme enjoyed by 18 to 30 years olds from Australia and other wealthy countries, the visa would not be extendable and workers would have no access to UK benefits.
Suggested by Migration Watch’s Andrew Green, the proposal has reportedly been greeted as “a good idea” by a senior Home Office source. Indeed, another immigration expert told the Financial Times the scheme was one of the government’s “only options” for ensuring an adequate supply of low-skilled workers after Brexit. This all tallies with comments from David Davis back in February suggesting it would be “years before we get British citizens to do those jobs”
If ministers take up the proposal, we can now add baristas and other low-skilled workers to the fruit pickers, City financiers, skilled construction workers and NHS medical staff which the government is keen to safeguard for Britain. Even hard-Brexit campaign group Leave Means Leave has proposed special regimes to keep both the NHS and farms filled with EU nationals.
Annual migration statistics published last week reveal how all these exceptions may restrict the government’s ability to slash EU migration. The ONS chart below gives an impression of the proportion of EU nationals working in those precise industries the ministers want to safeguard: construction, health, hospitality, financial services.
If all these EU nationals keep arriving, Leave voters may ask: what was the point? Indeed, it appears the government’s idea of an immigration system which “serves the national interest” may not be too different from the system in place now.
Some Brexiters may point to symbolic “control” as being preferable to free movement. Others will no doubt argue that the key is ending EU workers’ access to benefits – although EU nationals’ age demographics and employment rate suggest they are in reality supporting the older, less active British population.
The irony of the situation is that, having now apparently realised the value of EU migration to the economy, increased paperwork or just feeling unwelcome could see fewer EU workers coming here in the first place, damaging our industries and vital services such as the NHS.
However, it still seems most unlikely that net migration – 273,000 in the 12-month period to September – will fall all the way to the government’s target of the tens of thousands. Half of net migration is from outside the EU.
In an interview on the BBC’s Today programme, the prime minister was more ambiguous than she has been previously about the government’s target, saying: “We want migration at sustainable levels. I haven’t changed my view on that.” (listen from 02:21:15) May must spell out her migration policy clearly in her manifesto, and also abandon this dishonest target.
Edited by Hugo Dixon