Last week’s UK leaders debate included a long discussion about immigration.
UKIP’s Nigel Farage (pictured above in a variety of poses) declared “As members of the EU, what can we do to control immigration? Let me tell you — nothing”.
Other party leaders such as Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime-Ministerial-Hopeful Ed Miliband all emoted about what they saw as a problem of excessive immigration and gave various commitments as to how they would restrict access to welfare benefits for EU immigrants as a way to address this development.
For such an important issue, I found it striking how the debate revolved almost entirely around myths and misconceptions. Here are three important facts about UK immigration that should have been central to the debate but were not.
Fact 1: Most Immigration To The UK Is From Outside The EU
The idea that EU membership allows the UK no room to set its own immigration policy is blatantly false. A quick check of the official statistics from the Office for National Statistics shows net immigration from non-EU countries has always been larger than from the EU.
This means the UK has plenty of room to control immigration via limits on non-EU immigration. Indeed, non-EU immigration has generally been running at lower rates in recent years because the UK has introduced a points system and placed caps on the entry of various classes of people.
You can debate whether or not further restrictions of this kind (for example, further limiting the ability of UK universities to recruit fee-paying non-EU students) are a good idea. I don’t think they are but those who oppose high rates of immigration should spend more time focused on these issues than on blaming the EU.
Fact 2: Eastern European Immigrants Come For Work, Not Benefits
Of course, the chart above does show a big increase in net migration to the UK from the EU since 2004. This was the year eight Eastern European countries joined the EU. The UK decided at the time to allow full access for these EU citizens and there has been substantial immigration from these countries over the past decade. Indeed, Polish is now by some distance the most common non-British nationality for people residing in the UK.
So, to a large extent, the increase in EU-related immigration to the UK relates to Eastern Europeans moving to Britain. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband were all eager to counter Farage’s point that immigration from inside the EU could not be controlled. Each of them discussed their plans to cut down on welfare benefits for EU citizens coming to the UK as a way to reduce immigration from this source.
The theory behind this proposal appears to be that many people from Eastern Europe come to the UK because they can claim attractive social welfare benefits. The truth, however, is that immigrants from Eastern Europe come to the UK to work.
Look at the graph below (constructed from ONS statistics). As soon as people from Eastern Europe could come to the UK in 2004, they worked in far higher proportions than immigrants from other parts of the world. Indeed, people born in Eastern Europe have notably higher employment rates than those born in the UK. The idea that reducing eligibility for welfare benefits will have much impact on the presence of these people in the UK appears to be pure fantasy.
If ever there was a group of people that did not deserve to be depicted as welfare leeches, it is the UK’s Eastern European immigrants. That Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are all willing to go along with this lazy and bigoted line of thinking is to their substantial discredit.
Fact 3: Lots of UK Citizens Are Immigrants Abroad
The UKIP-driven immigration debate has focused solely how to limit the number of foreigners that live in the UK. UKIP want to implement this policy via withdrawing from the EU and removing the right of all EU citizens to live in the UK.
Lost amid the clamour of UK politicians showing they also care about too many foreigners being in the UK is the fact that there are very large numbers of UK citizens who live as immigrants in other countries. (Of course, in UK parlance, these folk are “ex-pats” rather than immigrants.)
The United Nations reports that in 2013, there were 7.8 million immigrants in the UK and 5.2 million UK citizens living abroad. In other words, for every three immigrants living in the UK, there are two “ex pats” living overseas.
Within the EU, the source of UKIP’s scorn, recent figures show there are 2.3 million EU immigrants living in the UK, while there are 1.8 million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU, including a whopping 1 million British people living in Spain. (To be fair, Nick Clegg did actually mention the number of UK migrants in the EU in the debate, though he still seemed keener to emphasise cutting down on welfare benefits for migrants.)
UKIP and their supporters likely imagine that after leaving the EU, countries like Spain will still be happy to allow huge numbers of British people to live and work there even though their own citizens would be denied the opportunity to do the same in the UK. I suspect the reality will be harsher for current and potential future ex-pats than many realise.
It may be difficult to jolt the UK debate on immigration out of its focus on blaming the EU and hypothetical welfare-scrounging Eastern Europeans. Perhaps it may take the ex-pat community to explain to British voters that migration privileges are very much a two-way street.