It is impossible to imagine Brexit without debate over immigration. So it is remarkable that the final report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), established to inform post-Brexit policy, presumes that immigration will not be covered by the UK’s final deal with the EU. The report, published earlier this week, does not recommend the exclusion of migration from talks in Brussels. The MAC’s working timetable meant it had to imagine a world without special access of EU and UK citizens to each other’s labour markets. But that loss is not a foregone conclusion, nor is it desirable.
The MAC recommends allowing in fewer low-skilled workers and more high-skilled ones. The latter group currently arrive on tier 2 visas, available to people from outside the European Economic Area, taking up jobs paying £30,000 or more a year. Their less qualified counterparts are said to exert downward pressure on wages and increase demand for public services. Those are the factors commonly cited as drivers of anti-migrant resentment, although it is not easy disaggregating economic considerations from xenophobia and nostalgia for a more ethnically homogeneous society.
The overall economic impact of migration does not, in the MAC’s analysis, justify the scale and volume of the political backlash. EU workers have not had a dramatic influence on wage levels and they have paid more in taxes than they have cost the Exchequer. But broad-brush macroeconomic arguments have limited purchase in this debate. One of the mistakes that the remain campaign made was talking about Brexit as a threat to UK prosperity as a whole, when most people evaluate economic wellbeing in more proximate terms. Telling people they imagine impacts of migration is not an effective strategy for changing their minds if they have observed big demographic shifts in their neighbourhood.
A corollary is that EU migration has been a multifaceted chapter in our national story – a source of friendships and partners, not just plumbers and nurses. Their stories cannot be written off as a technical policy aberration. That means also that some fluid movement of people is a necessary feature in the design of a healthy future settlement between Britain and its neighbours. If there are overarching strategic, economic and political reasons to want a close relationship – not to mention intrinsic value in academic and cultural exchanges – the extension of post-Brexit privileges to EU citizens, and reciprocal advantages for UK citizens, must be in the deal.
What the exact terms are will depend on how far the government is willing to compromise on integration with the single market. Even without that step, Theresa May has signalled her view that the UK and EU should enjoy an enhanced “labour mobility framework”. The more we want to be part of a shared European space – which geography alone makes unavoidable – the more we will be integrated into EU labour markets. To pretend otherwise is to indulge the hardest Brexit myth, namely the delusion of the UK detached from its home continent, floating away into the Atlantic as a sole trader on equal terms with China and the US.
The MAC report provides some interesting analysis of the way migration policy can work in theory. But its value is diminished by neglect of one unavoidable reality: the UK’s migration policy is a subset of its Brexit position, which has not been settled and cannot be settled as long as the prime minister refuses to admit that our economic, strategic and cultural future is as part of Europe.