Are Aussie rules fair dinkum for immigration after Brexit?

Posted on 1 June 2016

EU passportsToday ‘Vote Leave’ announced their plans for a post-Brexit Australian-style points-based immigration system.

The ‘Australian points system’ is a popular slogan that resonates with voters because it is seen as shorthand for a controlled and selective migration policy, which welcomes those with skills we need and suggests an Aussie ‘toughness’ towards the unskilled. But the slogan is a long way from stacking up as a policy for Britain – a country with a different geography, demography and set of regional economic relationships to Australia.

Indeed, take calls for emulating this approach to immigration seriously, in policy terms, and this would lead to a significant increase in immigration to Britain, not a reduction at all. Net migration to Australia is 260,000 a year in a country with a population of just 19 million people. Relative to population, immigration to Australia is three times as high as that to the UK.

In deciding to focus its campaign on immigration, Leave has to answer three important questions about what, if anything, would change about immigration if Britain left the EU. Firstly, would leaving the EU actually lead to significant changes to free movement?

In their statement today Vote Leave answers this one pretty clearly. Under the new system “the automatic right of all EU citizens to come to live and work in the UK will end,” signalling an end to free movement. Could this happen without sacrificing free trade with Europe? Probably not, appears to be the answer from Michael Gove, who has said that Britain would quit the European single market if we vote for Brexit, and seek to negotiate bilateral trade deals.

Views on the feasibility and speed with which such deals could be concluded vary. US President Obama warned that Britain would have to join the back of the queue to strike its own deal with the US; Boris Johnson has pointed out that EU membership prevents us from doing our own deals and ties us down to joint negotiations as part of the EU, which have hardly been concluded at breakneck speed. Voters will make their own judgements – including about whether to prioritise lower immigration over access to the EU free market.

Secondly, what would happen to EU citizens already in the UK? This became a point of controversy during the Rochester by-election when Mark Reckless, seeking to be re-elected after switching from the Conservatives to UKIP, talked about repatriation. UKIP then changed its position to argue that all Europeans here legally before the referendum would have the right to remain and to apply for British citizenship.

On this Leave is categorical that “there will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.” Opponents of Brexit appear to have (finally) conceded that this point is not up for debate and that EU citizens residing in Britain are under no threat of repatriation in the event of a vote to leave the European Union – ‘common sense consensus’ urged last month by British Future and voices from a broad range of positions in the immigration debate.

Thirdly, what would leaving the EU mean for non-EU immigration?

Leave campaigners have suggested that moving away from free movement would allow a more generous approach to non-EU migrants, saying it would enable Britain to end discrimination against non-EU citizens. Such proposals aim to shift what is currently a toxic reputation with a majority of Asian and black voters, who could find some appeal in an argument to rebalance European and Commonwealth migration, if they were to trust the motives of the messenger.

So this is a politically attractive proposal for Leave – but there is also a clear policy consequence of making it.

The idea that Brexit makes greater generosity to non-EU migrants possible is a coherent position if and only if those making it acknowledge that leaving the EU

would not, therefore, make it possible to reduce net migration levels to anything like the government’s ‘tens of thousands’ target. After all, non-EU net migration is 188,000 – so the laws of mathematics dictate that you can’t increase this number and hope to reduce the overall figure to ‘tens of thousands’.

If, on the other hand, Leave wants to argue for an immigration policy that would significantly reduce overall net migration numbers to the kind of level aspired to by Home Secretary Theresa May, an honest campaign would have to argue for more restrictive non-EU migration – not a more welcoming approach to skilled Indians and Commonwealth migrants.

Instead, Leave has tried to argue for both – trying to have their cake and eat it by suggesting a system that is more liberal towards non-EU migrants and yet also capable of getting overall numbers down below 100,000. In this they are not alone – such a fondness for cake appears to be a recurring theme in the immigration debate, one that is peppered with unkeepable promises, with Leave’s opponents David Cameron and Theresa May both doggedly committed to their ‘tens of thousands’ net migration target while also campaigning to keep the EU free movement that makes meeting it nigh-on impossible.

This piece is adapted from ‘How (not) to talk about Europe, published by British Future

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