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New Open Europe report: Bad management by the UK Government and the European Commission risks undermining public support for EU free movement

12 Mar 2012


Open Europe will advise a cross-party group of MPs this week that, in the long list of priorities for fundamentally reforming the UK’s relationship with Europe, the EU’s influence over UK immigration policy should rank below issues such as its control over social and employment law, financial services regulation and criminal justice law.

With the EU's principles of free movement and open borders coming under increasing attack, including from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Open Europe has today published a new report arguing that EU policies relating to external and internal immigration, including free movement of workers and people, have, on balance, worked in the UK’s interest. However, the report also notes that EU free movement in particular has been subject to poor political management and sets out a number of proposals for reform which will help balance the potential economic benefits of immigration with democratic principles and the growing scepticism amongst the public.

The briefing also notes that free movement of EU nationals accounted for 27% of total UK net immigration in 2010, meaning that immigration to the UK is still primarily driven by people from outside the EU.

Under its right to ‘opt in or out’, the UK has so far chosen to stay outside of most of the EU’s external immigration and asylum policies, i.e. all issues that relate to migration to the UK from countries outside the EU.

Open Europe’s Research Director Stephen Booth said,

“The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that new migrants from Eastern Europe have come to the UK in search of work not welfare benefits, while free movement also has the potential to boost growth and competitiveness in both the UK and Europe. The Government should therefore continue to support this policy.”

“However, free movement also throws up a huge number of political challenges, such as a substantial loss of national control over entry, increased competition in low-skilled sectors and downward pressures on wages. If public confidence is not to be lost completely, free movement needs to be managed with extreme care and tempered with other policies including the right of the UK to protect its welfare system from abuse. So far, both the UK Government and the European Commission have failed to take these challenges seriously.”

“Since 1998, at least three million new jobs were created in the UK but they have increasingly been filled by foreign workers. This is a UK problem, not an EU one, and illustrates the need for domestic policies targeted at creating the incentives for UK citizens to work and improving their skill levels.”

To read the report in full, please click here:
http://www.openeurope.org.uk/Content/Documents/EUimmigration2012_new.pdf

Key points

EU-level immigration policy concerns two aspects:

1) External third-country immigration to the EU, which includes asylum, visas, the EU’s external borders, and policies on economic migration of non-EU nationals.

2) Internal migration of nationals of EU and European Economic Area (EEA) countries under the EU’s freedom of movement rules.

Asylum and non-EU migration

On the whole, the UK’s retention of its own border controls and its discretion to opt in to EU laws in asylum and immigration law have so far limited the EU’s influence over UK immigration policy, while allowing Britain to take advantage of common EU measures when those are in its national interest.

The UK’s ‘pick and mix’ approach to cooperation in EU asylum policy now draws a healthy degree of cross-party consensus and should remain in place. At the moment, the UK’s participation in EU measures is largely limited to cooperation in the EU’s so-called ‘Dublin System’, which, in most cases, allows the UK to return asylum seekers to the member states in which they first arrived in the EU.

However, the UK could seek to replace the current arrangement with a ‘reversible’ opt-in, in order to avoid the current situation whereby decisions to sign up to EU laws in this area bind future governments. This would require EU Treaty change and the unanimous agreement of other EU member states.

Free movement of nationals of EU member states

EU migration accounted for 27% of total UK net immigration in 2010 – a majority of which comes from the new Eastern European states which joined the EU in 2004.

While the overall impact of migration from other EU countries is inconclusive, it is clear that migration can have positive economic impacts on competitiveness in the UK as well as Europe as a whole. The evidence also overwhelmingly suggests that migrants from EU countries have come to the UK in search of work rather than to take advantage of the UK’s welfare system.

However, the impact of new EU immigration is most likely to have been felt at the low-skill end of the labour market, increasing competition for jobs amongst low-skilled and younger workers, while potentially lowering real wages. It has also put strains on public services in some areas due to a concentrated and sudden influx of migrants, while limiting the UK’s ability to control its own borders and cross-border crime.

Due to these side-effects, and the understandable impact they can have on public opinion, EU free movement needs to be handled with care and attention by politicians and policymakers. Unfortunately, recent errors of judgement by both the UK Government and the European Commission are only likely to undermine public confidence in free movement.

The previous government clearly underestimated the impact that EU enlargement would have on increasing net EU immigration flows, suggesting the net immigration of Eastern European migrants would range between only 5,000 and 13,000 a year. In fact, it averaged closer to 42,000 a year between 2004 and 2010. This is likely to have decreased public confidence in EU free movement.

The current legal dispute between the UK Government and the European Commission over the UK’s ‘right to reside’ test concerning EU nationals’ access to benefits is also likely to fuel public distrust of free movement and represents a public relations own goal for the Commission.

Open Europe recommends that the UK remain committed to free movement but, in order to keep an increasingly sceptical public on board, that the following reforms are pursued:

- The UK should work with other EU member states and the European Commission for a reformed, more transparent system that gives member states more discretion in enforcing safeguards against undue strains on public finances and welfare systems. The Commission should drop its case against the UK’s ‘right to reside test’ and instead pursue reform of the current EU system on access to benefits, which is currently both confusing and illogical.

- A more effective system of statistics and planning should be put in place in order to avoid sudden strains on public services and improve public debate on immigration.

- For future EU enlargements, particularly to large, low GDP per capita countries such as Turkey, tighter transitional controls might be necessary, based on more objective criteria such as relative GDP per capita, rather than the arbitrary time-limited controls used up to now.

Domestic policies targeted at creating incentives for UK citizens to work and improving their skill levels is far more important than bearing down on EU free movement. Since 1998, at least three million new jobs were created in the UK but they have increasingly been filled by EU and non-EU workers. This is a UK problem, not an EU one.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

1) For more information, please contact the office on 0044 (0)207 197 2333, Stephen Booth on 0044 (0)788 162 5889 or Mats Persson on 0044 (0)779 946 0691.

2) Open Europe will brief the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on EU reform on Tuesday 13 March.

3) Open Europe is an independent think-tank calling for reform of the European Union. Its supporters include: Lord Leach of Fairford, Director, Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd; Peter Cruddas, CMC Markets Plc; Lord Wolfson, Chief Executive, Next Plc; Hugh Sloane, Co-Founder and Chief Executive, Sloane Robinson; Sir Stuart Rose, former Chairman, Marks and Spencer Plc; Jeremy Hosking, Director, Marathon Asset Management; Sir Henry Keswick, Chairman, Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd; Sir Martin Jacomb, former Chairman, Prudential Plc; Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover KG, Life President, J Sainsbury Plc; Michael Dobson, Chief Executive, Schroders Plc; David Mayhew, former Chairman, JP Morgan Cazenove.

For a full list, please click here:
http://www.openeurope.org.uk/Page/Supporters/en/LIVE

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