BY DON FLYNN
A month ought to have been long enough to assemble thoughts on what Brexit is going to mean for immigration policy, but the truth is the great puzzle over what life will look like outside the EU is going to be perplexing us for a long time to come.
The imminent end of free movement, at least in the form that it has taken during the 43 years the UK has been a full member of the European Community/Union, will bring to the forefront of the thinking of many people the huge benefits that have come from this way of managing migration over this time.
Low-cost free movement
You never miss your water until the well runs dry is a familiar refrain from any number of country blues songs. Its full meaning is likely to become obvious to all sorts of folk who have never realised just how fortunate they have been to live in a place where any number of workers want to come and work.
Those who have benefited from the right to move across borders without all the impedimenta of visas, work permits, identity checks, etc. certainly include the people doing the moving, but in addition a great number of people who have been able to make use of their labour and skills in the businesses and services in which they have been employed. The absence of the bureaucratic encumbrance of old-fashioned immigration controls has allowed the European labour market to operate much more efficiently at lower cost to all concerned.
And it is not just the migrants and those who have
employed them who gain from free movement. The boom in job creation that was put underway in the middle of the last decade and, although interrupted by the Great Recession of 2008, has recovered since then to show the numbers of home-grown workers in paid employment to be at or close to record levels.
Turning all jobs into decent jobs
There are many features of this labour market that are deeply troubling and the appropriate responses, in the form of government policies and employment protection measures that come from good regulation and strong worker representation through effective trade unions, are all urgently needed. But prior to the Brexit vote we at least knew in principle what needed to be done to get better outcomes in terms of turning all jobs into decent jobs, and very little of that had much to do with stopping migrants coming in and finding the places that best suited them in the world of work.
The news reports over the weekend suggest that a deal over the terms of Brexit might be on offer which will allow the UK continued access to the single market but with the right to impose an ‘emergency break’ on the exercise of free movement that might last as long as seven years.
A provision of this sort emerged from David Cameron’s renegotiation of EU membership terms. As happened at that time, the problem with the proposal lies in deciding what constitutes an emergency of sufficient magnitude to suspend the operation of a rule which all other participants in the single market are obliged to adhere to. Is it something that shows up in evidence of large-scale unemployment, collapsing wage levels and unsustainable pressure on public services? Or will the fact that the government of the day is becoming unpopular with voters over this issue be sufficient to trigger a brake?
A better approach
In our view these are poor grounds in which to frame policies on the movement of people in for a Britain that has exited from the EU. A better approach would be to look at the areas where the harm is going to be done as a result of a loss of free movement rights and to construct policies which address these. These exists most sharply under the following headings:
Loss of residence rights because of unemployment
The UK government is continuing to prevaricate over the assurances that it is prepared to provide to around 3 million people in this category. Whilst the mass expulsion of this group is highly unlikely, being forbidden by international law as much as more practical considerations, there exists a great anxiety amongst many EU migrants that their rights will be chipped away over time if, as individuals, they fail to maintain the standards of being actively in employment and net contributors to the public revenue.
MRN regularly receives reports of measures being taken at Job Centres across the country to bring in Home Office enforcement officials to review the residence status of people who have been unemployment for more than a few months, or who are dependent on sectors where casual and part-time contracts are the norm. In many instances this leads to official notices being handed out which inform the individual that they are considered to be exercising a right associated with free movement and are required to leave the country.
The uncertain economic future of post-Brexit Britain means that it faces the risk of increasingly lengthy periods of unemployment for people affected by downturns in the sectors in which they work. The government needs to be pressed on this point that the established EU national communities will not be placed at any greater risk of losing their rights of residence as a consequence of a reduction in job opportunities.
Political and social rights
At the moment the right of EU nationals to participate in elections to local and regional government is secured by EU law. What will happen after Brexit? If the obligations imposed by EU Treaty no longer hold, will people be refused a say in the way their local communities are governed?
It is important that local and regional authorities across the UK come out with a position on this as soon as possible. The right to participate in democratic processes is a feature of what most would consider a well-integrated society. The government should be pressed to provide an assurance that it will continue to uphold the right to vote and stand for election which EU nationals currently enjoy.
The question of family rights needs to be looked at as well. EU law provides a right to family unification for EU nationals which is considerably more comprehensive than that extended to British nationals. Both EU nationals and the current crop of UK nationals divided by the family rules have an interest in ensuring that post-Brexit arrangements do not lead to a levelling-down of family rights to those which impede the reunion rights of people who merely hold British citizenship. The Brexit negotiations should be used as an opportunity to look at this vexed issue completely from scratch.
Young people across all EU nationalities, including British, are the sector of society who will lose the most from Brexit. They are growing up in a continent-wide arrangement which has created a vast field of opportunities in terms of education, careers, as well as the benefits that come from being able to enjoying sporting and leisure opportunities across the whole of Europe. The wave of anger that came from this group of people immediately after the Brexit result show their intense awareness of what they are in danger of losing.
The Brexit negotiations ought to provide the opportunity to press for a set of policies which mitigate this loss. Consideration should be given to the creation of a UK-EU youth mobility programme which is open to all secondary and tertiary students and adults up to an agreed age which continues to allow them the rights to participate in service and employment opportunities in the single market.
This arrangement should be reciprocal – with young EU nationals being free to come to the UK as well as Brits moving within the Union.
There will be a lot more detail to fill in as we face up to the realities of Brexit negotiations: but will need to do this by being clear about what we want and the best way to achieve it.