Immigration: public deserves straight answers in EU referendum debate

Posted on 4 January 2016

For much of Britain, writes Sunder Katwala, immigration is the big question of the EU referendum. Yet voters risk being denied the straight answers on immigration that they need.

When Britain votes in the referendum, the public will get to decide whether they want to be part of an EU with free movement. It’s important that this is an informed choice. Both sides need to set out a real-world vision of what immigration would look like if they win the referendum.

The ‘Remain’ campaign needs to face up to the fact that there is no way to guarantee a significant reduction in EU migration while we stay in the European Union. It should instead set out a practical plan to deal with the immigration we have. That could include:

–       Managing the impacts of high migration better by making a more direct link between the number of EU migrants arriving and the resources available to local areas where the pace of change has been fastest;

–       Making integration of EU migrants work – with the government setting a civic norm that everyone in Britain for a year or more should speak English or be learning it.

–       Fixing the broken net migration target – with a Comprehensive Immigration Review to examine the feasibility of policies to hit the target; and a review of the target itself if those policies prove unworkable or too unpopular with the public.

If ‘Leave’ is claiming it can offer lower immigration, it should show the public a real-world plan to deliver it. That would have to include answers to some key questions:

  • Could Britain negotiate a free trade deal that does not include free movement?
  • What would happen to EU citizens already in the UK? and
  • What would Brexit mean for non-EU immigration – if a post-Brexit Britain did seek to attract skills and talent from countries outside Europe, what impact would that have on net migration levels?

Prime Minister David Cameron will also need to bring something back from his Brussels renegotiation on immigration. A deal which ensures EU migrants contribute before they can access benefits would go down well with the public, as it shows that people coming to the UK are here for the right reasons. It’s hard to see, however, how it will make any significant difference to the level of immigration from the EU.

But the truth for the Prime Minister is that it will be extremely difficult to offer a clear route to achieving Theresa May’s net migration target of ‘tens of thousands’ while we remain part of free movement – and impossible to guarantee a fall to those levels.

The Prime Minister should instead look closer to home and set out a plan to manage migration better, including integration and the impact on public services.

Whatever the referendum result, there will be a case for a Comprehensive Immigration Review, as we have advocated with the Institute of Directors. Beyond the referendum, it may be time to ask whether the net migration target should be revised or replaced with something more realistic that the public can believe in.

This is an extract from ‘How (not) to talk about Europe’, a new pamphlet from British Future, published on Wednesday 6 January 2016. 

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