Effects of Brexit on Immigration
In June 2016, the British public voted to leave the European Union (EU). For many, it was a shocking result because nobody knew what it meant for Britain to leave the EU and the political and economic effects it entailed. There are many reasons that led to Brexit, but one of the main issues surrounding the whole discussion was immigration. According to the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, there was a clear distinction of attitudes towards immigration between those who voted Remain and those who voted Leave. Among those who were worried about immigration, 73% voted Leave. With Prime Minister Theresa May triggering Article 50 on March 29, 2017, Brexit will be inevitable and Britain will officially exit the EU in March 2019. So, what does this mean for immigrants, especially EU nationals, post Brexit?
Before Brexit, EU citizens are able to enjoy the right to live, work and study in the UK without any visa applications under the EU’s freedom of movement rules. Nevertheless, with Brexit in place, the freedom of movement rule will cease to exist. At the same time, any existing EU laws will also be transposed into the ‘EU Withdrawal Bill’, also known as the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, where the UK government will be able to ‘amend, repeal and improve’ any individual laws it believes are necessary. This will definitely be a complex and intricate process and will take time for the UK government to complete the process. Although it is unlikely that EU immigrants currently residing in Britain will be deported, Theresa May plans to control the ‘number of people who come to Britain from Europe’.
One of Theresa May’s plans of action is to bring net migration to under 100,000 per year. This has become a cause of concern for many businesses operating across the UK, particularly given that EU migrants make up a fairly large percentage of British industries. According to the Office for National Statistics, this ranges from fruit and vegetable processing to the hotel industry. Businesses are worried that with Brexit and the end of freedom of movement rules, there will be a lack of workers in certain industries and certain positions will be left unfilled. If EU nationals currently residing in the UK are worried about their status, GOV.UK provides a guide that provides all the information you need to know, including rights of EU nationals and citizenship applications.
The plans of the UK government to make firms draw up lists of foreign workers has also caused public outcry due to the sinister and authoritarian nature of the proposal. The plan has now been dropped and also denied by Theresa May as ‘naming and shaming’ businesses that hired high proportions of foreign workers. Nonetheless, with 59% of Brits supporting this plan (according to a YouGov poll) and Home Secretary Amber Rudd stating that the proposal will help prevent immigrants ‘taking jobs British people could do’, this simply reinforced the fear the British public has towards immigrants.
Ultimately, how the UK’s immigration system will be like post-Brexit is still uncertain as the Home Office has decided to delay the White Paper on immigration until after the transition deal is agreed. Nevertheless, a draft document which was leaked by the Guardian states that it will restrict the number of EU migrants by giving ‘preference in the job market to resident workers’. It also proposes that measures will be set out to hopefully reduce the number of EU migrants, especially those of lower-skilled capacity, by offering them a maximum of 2 years of residency. There was a clear ‘Britain First’ theme across the entire document.
These restrictions may be outrageous to EU migrants, but for non-EU nationals, it doesn’t come as a shock. Dr Emma Gee makes an interesting point in The Guardian that the new restrictions imposed on EU immigrants are perhaps a reasonable one because the pre-Brexit immigration system was an unequal one. As a skilled non-EU migrant herself, she had to go through a tough immigration process, including digital fingerprinting. Prior to her successful citizenship application, she also had to pay UK taxes for 7 years without the right to claim any forms of benefits whilst also supporting a minor.
Thus she argues that similar measures should also be applied to EU nationals. Dr Gee does make a fair point, but if we look at the bigger picture here, Brexit has resulted in a rise of hate crimes, racism and xenophobia which affects not only EU immigrants but non-EU ones, whose journey as an immigrant was already a difficult one pre-Brexit and Brexit perhaps has made it worse.
Effects of Immigration on Britain
The relationship between immigration and Brexit is clearly a love-hate one. With British workers’ real wages falling between 2007 and 2015 despite a growing economy, immigrants have become the scapegoat of the problems Britons are facing, thus leading to the assumption that Britain’s misfortune is the result of immigrants ‘stealing jobs’ and ‘claiming benefits’. British politicians have also seemingly encouraged this attitude by blaming immigrants instead of addressing the public policy failures regarding housing, the NHS, education and, as Simon Tilford puts it, ‘the diminishing social status of the white working class’. Simon also points out an interesting issue: the anti-immigrant sentiment during Brexit is heavily focused on EU immigrants instead of non-EU immigrants, which he believes is a huge problem as being anti-Polish immigrants is just as racist as being anti-Asian or anti-black immigrants. Thus, when politicians make EU immigrants the source of the problem, it is therefore legitimising xenophobia.
The link between immigration and unemployment is a complex one. It is difficult to jump to conclusions as to whether immigration has an effect on employment and other issues Britons are worried about. Tejvan Pettinger argues that it is mere fallacy as ‘immigrants who gain work also gain income to spend in the rest of the economy, creating new jobs’. In fact, the LSE published an intensive report debunking the various myths the British public believes immigration has brought to their country, such as areas of the UK with large increases in EU immigration did not suffer more falls in jobs and pay of British born workers, and that EU immigrants, with a net contribution of £7bn a year, help reduce the budget deficit by paying more in taxes than they take out in welfare.
So, let’s discuss the elephant in the room: the UK needs immigrants. Since 2004, EU immigrants have played an increasing role in the UK economy, especially in sectors ranging from hotels and restaurants to construction and warehousing. PwC has predicted that if EU migration is to be reduced by 50%, the average GDP per capita in 2030 will be reduced by ~0.2% which is ~£60 per person at 2017 GDP values. Perhaps, in the long run, skill gaps may be filled by UK nationals with more intense and enhanced training etc. However, this is not something that can be done within 5-10 years’ time.
Although Britain is still currently in a state of uncertainty, especially surrounding the establishment of a new immigration system, it is evident, from studies shown, that immigrants have brought many positive contributions towards British society. Ultimately, the key question from the Brexit and immigration argument is whether the government will establish a preferential system for EU nationals to access the labour market, or whether they will also be subject to the same controls non-EU nationals are currently facing. Unfortunately, this question will remain unanswered until the government publishes the White Paper on immigration.
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