In early 2004, a few weeks into my job as a migration researcher at a progressive thinktank, I found myself in the midst of the debate about whether to allow free movement to the UK for citizens of the EU’s new member states. At the time, most people thought this was a minor technocratic decision on the timing of free movement; few would have imagined the decision would have such a dramatic impact on the flows of people, or the question of whether Britain remains in Europe.
I argued that there were sensible public policy reasons for embracing the EU in this way. On the one hand, Labour strategists were deeply worried about how to manage the toxic politics of immigration, with a general election only a year away. On the other, in a parallel to today’s Brexit debates, were Treasury arguments about economic growth (there were an estimated 500,000 unfilled vacancies in the UK at the time) along with diplomatic arguments about protecting the fundamentals of the European project and winning the support of new EU members.
After what I am told was an incredibly tense cabinet decision, the government settled on free movement, but with a worker registration scheme to give some sense of control.
Today I have to admit: we got the predictions badly wrong. Given the unprecedented scale of the EU enlargement and the fact obvious destinations such as Germany and Austria chose to impose transitional restrictions, the “experts” did not have a historical comparison. So they guessed some 100,000 migrants would come to the UK in the first decade after enlargement. In fact, some 1.4 million have actually come.
But I still believe the 2004 decision was the right one for the UK, and that a Brexit based on reactionary fears would be the wrong one in 2016. What many people forget is that, back in 2004, it was a question of when, not if. Existing members of the EU could impose restrictions on the movements of migrants, but only up to seven years, not beyond.
When the decision was taken, Britain’s economy was booming. From the mid-1990s to 2008, we experienced the longest period of economic growth in the modern history of the UK. By 2004, unemployment had been falling steadily for a decade and economists were starting to worry about critical labour shortages, particularly low-skilled work in areas such as agriculture, food processing and manufacturing.
For decades, experts had been trying to find ways of getting Europeans to be more mobile. In the US, where people moved between states far more than Europeans moved between countries, it was proving easier to get the right people into the right jobs at the right time.
Once the decision was taken, Britain’s economic success proved a big draw, and not just to eastern Europe. Over the past 10 years, roughly half the annual EU arrivals have been from the group’s original member states – the wealthier western European nations, whose population movements here receive relatively few objections. So, while the Polish plumber was the headline grabber, Britain also became a magnet for French financiers, Danish designers and Spanish students.
The migrants who did arrive from the EU’s newer states had higher employment and lower wage rates than the UK population. Taken together, the EU migration of the last decade fed Britain’s economy at both ends of the labour market. And it has been a two-way street. There are an estimated 2.9 million EU nationals living here, and an estimated 1.8 million British migrants in the rest of the EU.
Though Britain still only ranks 10th of 28 EU countries in terms of its foreign population, there is no doubt that the levels of migration over the past decade, driven largely by EU mobility, have been unprecedented. The impact, on balance, has been hugely positive, though of course with its stresses and strains.
Attracted by work opportunities, eastern Europeans have been more likely than previous migrants to go to small towns and rural areas. Not only have these communities not been used to receiving migrants, but public services there have had to deal with increased diversity. Rather than having to adjust to one large, settled foreign language group, public authorities have had to provide for smaller numbers of people from diverse backgrounds, who are more likely to move more regularly.
The undoubtable truth is that we need to find better strategies to manage the impacts of migration and promote integration. What seems critical today is that we do not allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking a Brexit will make it easier to do either.
Immigration is the most important factor currently determining how people say they’ll vote in the referendum, and the argument that Brexit will stop “uncontrolled immigration” is being used with increasing frequency, most notably by Boris Johnson. But, as far as I can see, either the leave campaigners misunderstand the impact Brexit would have or they have decided to wilfully mislead us.
First, if Britain wants to retain a free trade agreement with the EU, in much the same way as Norway and Switzerland have, then free movement would almost certainly be an essential component of that. So Brexiters who want to stop EU free movement altogether would in effect need to stop all free trade as well, with serious consequences for the UK economy.
Second, one of the reasons the 2004 decision made sense was that it regularised tens of thousands of migrants who were already here and living in the shadows. Brexit without free movement is likely to see current EU migrants and future flows go underground, with negative knock-on effects on wages, public health and safety.
And third, given the global nature of the British economy and its reliance on mobility, full Brexit would likely lead to calls for increased migration from other parts of the world in order to keep key sectors of the economy, from finance to healthcare to higher education, ticking over. The employment minister Priti Patel has already been campaigning for Brexit on the basis that it would allow our curry houses to attract much-needed chefs. So it’s clear that Brexit probably wouldn’t mean lower levels of immigration overall.
As warmer weather arrives, large numbers of migrants are again attempting the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Some in Britain have argued this is a justification for Brexit. I see it as a visceral reminder that greater human mobility is an inevitability of the 21st century. The demographic, political and economic drivers all point to more flows, in more directions, in the coming decade.
For Britain, the choice is whether to try to manage these flows in a constructive, coordinated way as part of a wider EU, or to try to isolate itself from the migrants and the continent. Nigel Farage would have us believe that this is a choice between sexual assault by hordes of immoral invaders, or the chance to reclaim a kind of idyllic homogeneity. It is nothing of the sort. It is a choice between embracing Britain’s legacy at the global crossroads of emigration and immigration, or erecting unrealistic and damaging barriers to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world.
Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is the secretary general of Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. He led migration research at the Institute for Public Policy Research from 2004-08.