The Immigration-EU nexus

As we wait the publication of the latest figures on immigration – likely to show marked further increases in net migration – we might wonder about the link to the EU referendum. Nigel Farage has already been doing just that this morning.

It’s widely noted that a key part of UKIP’s success in recent years has been the coupling of the two issues: the EU forcing the UK to have open borders, leading to uncontrolled migration.Whatever one’s politics, the efficacy of the message is clear.

However, the referendum moves us into less clear waters. Unlike an election, this is nominally a single-issue vote and so normal political logics don’t always work.

In the case of the immigration-EU nexus (I’m preparing for the start of term by using more complicated words BTW) that means there is an opportunity to break that link in ways that haven’t been possible beforehand.

To date, the connection has worked because it’s presented as a inchoate mass: the immigration, the EU, lily-livered politicians, crime, British values, etc., etc. The details might not seem right, but the overall impression is one of a mess, and a of a mess that’s got serious implications for all sorts of things.

In the referendum debate, the focus falls much more sharply on the EU and its role. This matters because the claim from eurosceptics is that the EU is central in the failure to control immigration, because it creates an different category of (intra-EU) migrant over whom the UK has much more limited power to restrict or remove.

There’s certainly some truth to that view, although as Cameron is discovering now with his renegotiation, there is scope for further restrictions on benefits that lie within his power, rather than the Union’s. However, intra-EU migration remains the smaller part of UK immigration, and is typically more short-term and economically motivated than extra-EU flows.

Similarly, the referendum is an opportunity to note that the UK might be part of the EU’s free movement provisions, but not of Schengen. This means that it retains border controls and has the right to strengthen those. To take the case in point, if the UK wasn’t a EU member state then it would probably have found it harder to build an agreement with the French about managing Calais this summer. The issue of aslyum-seekers and economic migrations moving across the Schengen area will  not change with the UK’s departure, and the UK would loose its institutionalised voice to press for policy solutions to that.

Finally, the referendum opens up the question of the UK’s role in the world. Almost all sides in the debate say that the UK should be a global player, rather than one that turns its back on the world. A key part of that openness is a relatively benign immigration policy. That debate has already highlighted the case of international students, who are widely seen as suffering collateral damage from the tightening of visas. That example points to how attitudes towards ‘migrants’ as an undifferentiated mass move move to a more informed and considered unpacking. Germany’s actions on asylum-seekers is a case in point.

In sum, the referendum opens up opportunities that we might do well to take.