Immigration—the catalyst for Brexit

The Great Britain that many have come to know and love today isn’t actually British at all. It has been built on a foundation of centuries of immigration and we are a country whose long history of diverse settler cultures has shaped our current society.

From Julius Caesar’s invasion in 55BC, to the Vikings and the Windrush generation, like it or not nearly all of us share an immigrant past. But despite our common ancestry, the subject of immigration remains a modern day dilemma and is a divisive and passionate subject to many. The vote that split the UK on 23 June 2016—where 17.5 million people in the UK made the decision to leave the EU—is something we currently cannot escape and there is little doubt that the issue of immigration was a principal factor in determining which way many voted. Research collated by the National Centre for Social Research through a survey of nearly 3,000 British people, states suggestions by politicians and others that the Brexit vote represented disenchantment with politics were ‘widely off the mark’.

This article explores the reasons behind why immigration was such a driving force behind Brexit, the impact that has had to date and the current predictions of how things will be following the UK’s exit at 11pm (GMT) on Friday, 29 March 2019.

Attitudes prior to the vote

A report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), shows that over the past two decades there has been a significant shift towards Europeans entering and residing in the UK, which is currently home to around 3.6 million EU nationals and according to the CBI, accounting for between 4% and 30% in every major sector of the workforce.

Despite freedom of movement of workers being in place from the late 1990s, there wasn’t a substantial concern over EU migration at that time. The catalyst behind this growing fear appears to have begun in 2004, when eastern and central European nations joined the EU, and the UK chose not to put in place the seven-year block on workers from these poorer countries accessing the UK’s labour market. This choice resulted in the UK’s population experiencing an increase from 1.5% to 5% between 2004 and 2017 of those from an EEA country.

Prior to the Brexit vote, public views swayed towards certain notions about those coming into the UK. The British Social Attitudes survey reveals some believed that increased migration was causing reduced wages and job opportunities for those ‘native’ to the UK, as well as rising house prices and an increased ‘strain’ on the benefits system, due to a lack of payment in taxes. Many feared that certain British towns were becoming immigrant strongholds and ideas around the dilution of the traditional British way of life began to take hold in the eyes of some quarters of society.

What has been the impact to date?

The agricultural sector had seen a long-term decline in British production of asparagus, cherries, raspberries and strawberries. But all four crops have grown or stabilised since 2004 when new workers from Eastern Europe became available.

Farmers, quite simply, saw an opportunity to expand thanks to a massive supply of cheap labour they didn’t have before. They say that British workers, by and large, don’t want the jobs, with long hours and not-so-fantastic pay.

The service sector in recent years has been one of the UK’s most successful economic areas. To a large extent this success has been founded o the efforts of immigrant workers. What’s not remotely clear is how employers would respond if the ready supply of EEA labour dried up, should free movement end.

Critics of the current system say they would inevitably have to offer better terms and conditions to existing workers in the UK and invest more in productivity and technology—think strawberry-picking machine, rather than strawberry picker. That, say critics of free movement, would be a good thing for the UK.

And that brings us to the other big topic—is the disruption caused by mass migration affecting the UK in other ways?

There’s no evidence that EEA migrants are draining public services.

The MAC report looked at a number of key public services—starting with health—and found EEA migrants contribute more to the NHS and social care than they use.

EEA workers make up an increasing share of the workforce in this sector, although historically the UK has relied more on nurses and doctors born in Commonwealth countries.

What are the upcoming predictions?

As well as this a poll from YouGov showed that 56% of people named ‘immigration and asylum’ as the top issue facing the country.

Most recently one could equate these similar movements with the rise of Eastern European’s coming to the UK with hope of work or asylum under the ‘booming’ British economy. As with lessons learnt in the past, attitudes today: ‘I have been studying this for years, and there’s never been a move this big in such a short period of time,’ said Rob Ford, a politics professor at the University of Manchester in the Washington post.

In exchange for obeying trade rules from Brussels, May has promised the British people that she will slash the country’s post-Brexit immigration levels. The 3 million Europeans already living in Britain will be allowed to stay, but the government will set new guidelines for how many foreigners will be allowed into the country, with what levels of income and from which countries.

But what does this mean legally and what does this mean for jobs?

There is little doubt that the key issue of immigration played a central role in the Brexit movement and was one of the defining arguments that united anti-globalists, eurosceptics and nationalists to vote the UK out of the EU. One of the goals of Brexit was to remake the UK’s immigration system, and arguably immigration in both the UK and EU will look very different once the UK leaves the bloc. The results of the UK’s withdrawal agreement and any mobility provisions will have significant impacts on European companies as they choose where to locate their businesses, how best to access global talent and how to move people most efficiently throughout their mainland and UK operations.

Brexit negotiators from both sides are currently hammering out the legal status of more than 3 million European nationals already living in the UK and approximately 1 million British citizens living across the EU. Those negotiations appear to be nearly resolved and would essentially allow current immigrants to register and accrue time toward permanent residency status.

But after the divorce is finalised in March 2019, the UK will no longer be subject to EU rules on the free movement of people and will be free to create its own immigration system. What will that system look like? And how will Brexit impact free movement in the remaining EU27 countries?

UK Businesses hope to protect their companies from post Brexit staffing shortages after Britain leaves the EU. In the CBI’s report entitled Open and Controlled: a New Approach to Migration Thersea may is urged to allow visa-free entry into the UK by EU citizens who can make a positive contribution to the economy and to set aside net migration targets.

May’s government has a ‘long-standing target to reduce net migration to below 100,000 a year’, says Bloomberg, which adds that ‘freedom of movement from the EU was also a rallying point for Leave voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum’.

After 30 March 2019 EU nationals arriving in the UK will be given a ‘temporary status’ allowing them to stay beyond the end of a transition phase in December 2020.  

The CBI believes that ‘over burdensome’ visa regulations could harm both vital public services and business through a depletion of the UK workforce. It is suggested that that if EU citizens had to fit the current criteria for those applying to live and work in Britain from outside the EU, the ‘salary and skills requirements mean most would not be successful in their applications’, since migrants seeking ‘Tier 2’ visas for skilled workers are required to earn at least £30,000 a year. However, it is believed that UK negotiators may be looking towards an arrangement that remains very similar to the current one.

As of February the NHS had 35,000 vacancies for nurses and nearly 10,000 for doctors and NHS leaders have stated that financial requirements and caps on entries with Tier 2 visas make it difficult to recruit enough people from abroad to staff the health service.  In June Home Secretary Sajid Javid said that the UK would relax its immigration controls for workers from outside the EU in order to make up for this shortfall.

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