Let’s start with one of the most hotly debated issues surrounding the referendum: immigration. We can break this down into several key questions: how many immigrants from the EU are in the UK? What are the costs and benefits of migration from and to the UK? And, what is the likely future situation with regard to EU immigration depending on the outcome of the referendum?
The independent organisation Migration Watch found in the middle of last year (2015) that there were just over 3 million people from the EU living in the UK. 2 million of these have arrived since the EU underwent significant expansion from 15 to 25 member states in 2004 (and to 27 in 2007). Of those 2 million, 1.3 million are in work, the rest are under 16s (330,000), unemployed (70,000) or economically inactive (mostly students, but also including long term sick and those caring for a family – 250,000). Immigration from the EU makes up just less than half of total immigration to the UK. From September 2014 to September 2015 there were 257,000 EU immigrants entering the UK and 273,000 non-EU immigrants, as reported by the Office of National Statistics. Net migration (the balance of those entering and leaving the UK) from the EU from June 2014 to June 2015 was 180,000.
Immigration to and from the EU has been reported to have some pros:
- European migrants make a net contribution to UK economy. An academic study by University College London found that immigrants from the EU pay more in taxes into the British economy than they receive in benefits.
- There are over 1 million British people currently living and/or working in other EU countries, broadening the range of available opportunities particularly for young people and those seeking to retire abroad.
- Immigrants from the EU can fill gaps in the labour market where there is a shortage of British workers. A study from the London School of Economics in 2014 found that concerns about negative effects of immigration from the EU on the UK labour market have not been realised.
And some cons:
- There may be increased pressures on public services by high levels of migration. This is not easy to quantify and is likely to vary significantly based on where you live in the UK. A report by the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee in 2012 concluded along these lines and said the impact of migration (from all countries, not just the EU) on public services was not possible to identify definitively since the situation will vary on a case by case basis.
- Greater levels of immigration may lead to reduced wages for all workers, especially for low-skilled workers. A study by the Bank of England in 2015 found that the ratio of immigrants to British workers did have a small negative effect on average wages in the UK, but also that the impact is no different for EU or non-EU immigrants.
- Immigration increases the proportion of children who speak English as a second language in schools. A 2015 report from the University of Oxford found that in 2013 just over 16% of school pupils in the UK spoke English as a second language (not confined to Europeans), with 8.4% of schools in the UK having a majority of pupils who speak English as an additional language. The report also found that there is minimal difference in levels of attainment between students who speak English as an additional language and native English speakers by age 16, though they are more likely than native speakers to pass a maths GCSE, a modern foreign language GCSE and achieve the English Baccalaureate (passing a GCSE in a range of subjects).
How might the situation change if the UK voted to leave the EU in the referendum?
If the UK stayed in the European Economic Area, like Norway, there would likely be no change to immigration from the EU. Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, the countries outside of the EU that make up the European Economic Area, still commit to the free movement of people. The Swiss situation is slightly different and they have recently voted in a referendum to curb the number of immigrants entering Switzerland from the EU, but the EU consequently reduced its funding for scientific research in Switzerland. It is interesting to note that, at present, there is actually more immigration from the EU into Norway and Switzerland, per population, than there is to the UK (according to Eurostat).
If the UK no longer accepted the free movement of people from and to the EU, and applied the same rules for migrants outside of the EU to those from inside, EU immigration to the UK would almost certainly reduce, since only skilled and highly skilled migrants would be accepted. Migration Watch make an imperfect estimate that net migration from the EU could shrink to 65,000 per year from the 180,000 net figure from June 2014 to June 2015.
And if we remain in the EU?
If we stay, David Cameron has secured some special measures that will limit the economic impact of EU immigration to the UK. The UK will be allowed to apply an ’emergency brake’ on providing in-work benefits to immigrants from the EU for seven years, but only to new immigrants. This restriction on the availability of benefit payments to EU immigrants may lead to a reduction in the number entering and seeking work in the UK, but this is very difficult to predict accurately and we don’t know what will happen once the brake is lifted after seven years.