On Twitter, I’ve been feeling the heat from the Leavers of late. Despite being a passionate Europhile, I have a lot of sympathy for these people. They are exactly where I and many people I worked with on the Yes to AV campaign were five years ago. “It’s all unfair”, “the other guys are nasty liars”, “it’s all an establishment conspiracy” – the echoes are so identical it is eerie.
One such Brexiteer sent me a list of five questions the Remain campaign and the Prime Minister “must answer” in the run in to referendum polling day. I’m not either of those two things, but I thought I’d try and answer anyhow, so here goes:
- How can you possibly control EU immigration into this country?
The pointed nature of this question is fairly partisan in itself, but I’ll step over that and just answer it. The Brexiteers have asked because they already know the answer: you can’t. Free movement of people means free movement of people. The real questions around this are why we are now so uptight about this when more of us used to be relatively relaxed about it, what are the upsides for British citizens to freedom of movement (for it is something that comes with both pros and cons), and whether or not leaving the EU will really change this in anyway whatsoever anyhow.
EU immigration into the UK used to be relatively low. This is why it was not that large an issue in the British public consciousness for a protracted period of time. Then in 2004, a lot changed. Ten countries joined the EU – most notably for the purposes of what we are discussing here, Poland. Due to fears regarding an influx of immigrants leaving these mostly poorer countries of the former Eastern Bloc, the EU took the unprecedented step of introducing transitional controls on migrants from the new members of the Union. Already existing member states could introduce pretty much any controls they liked on the joining countries so long as they were all lifted prior to May 1st, 2011. It was a seven year grace period, if you will.
For whatever reasons, the UK and Sweden alone decided to not impose any transition controls whatsoever and allow citizens of the ten joining countries full freedom of movement access. It isn’t much of a surprise in retrospect that both received a large influx of immigrants. Particularly the UK, with a much more multicultural society than the Swedes, and this led to over half a million Poles immigrating to the UK in a short period of time.
I do not want to debate the pros and cons of this migration as it is a large topic. I will say that I think it poisoned the discourse in this country around immigration and made everyone a little more UKIPpy in the process, which is highly unfortunate. I would only like to stress again that this happened due to a decision made by the UK government itself, and was not forced upon us by the EU. Had the UK taken steps like France or Germany, migration would have been extremely minimal – or none at all, if we’d decided to go that way, which again, was in our rights to do as a sovereign nation and we chose not to.
As for what we get as a nation from freedom of movement: I read from some Brexiteers somewhere not long ago that working class kids in this country are “not thinking of setting up some tech company in Milan”. My response to this is: why the hell not? In other words, why not look at the single market and freedom of movement as an advantage to those in Britain who wish to better themselves? The Remain camp is always charged with being negative, but it’s the Leavers who want to tell the working classes to aim low here.
Finally, leaving the EU would almost certainly not have any effect on immigration whatsoever anyhow. This is because, if you look at likely post-Brexit scenarios, freedom of movement would almost certainly remain precisely as is even if we left. The government has a choice if we vote to leave on June 23rd: either become Norway or plunge into the abyss. The EU, whatever it says now, would push for this deal; the pressure from the business community, threatening monumental jobs losses through relocation to the continent, would be impossible for a government, particularly a Tory one, to ignore. So we’d remain in the EEA and leave the EU. Which means freedom of movement rules would stay precisely the same, and I do mean precisely. So if you want to vote leave over immigration, don’t bother, it won’t help.
2. The living wage is an excellent policy, but how will you stop it being a pull factor for uncontrolled EU migration, given that it is far higher than minimum wages in other countries?
The minimum wage in this country has always been higher than in a lot of EU countries, so raising it slightly isn’t likely to make that much of a difference. Again, the only time we’ve seen a huge wave of EU immigration to this country is when we have offered something almost no one else has, far beyond a few more pounds, like in 2004 when we lifted transition controls for the ten members states of our own volition.
3. How will you prevent the European Court from interfering further in immigration, asylum, human rights, and all kinds of matters that have nothing to do with the so-called Single Market?
I need to comment on the “so-called” usage here. Is this because it isn’t enough of a market or because it’s too much of one? This is really unclear to me – perhaps it is to the Brexiteers as well.
Anyhow, I digress: the ECJ is much maligned in this country, which is strange when you think about it. The idea that ECJ “interferes” with things like immigration, asylum, human rights all comes down to things like the Abu Hamza case (actually, not “like” the Abu Hamza case now that I think about it, but that case pretty much in isolation). That was a case about whether we could deport someone abroad knowing they were going to face torture or death upon their arrival there. Now you can moan about Abu Hamza and the ECJ all you like, but this would have been a matter of internal debate even if we weren’t ECJ signatories – blaming it all on the ECJ was highly convenient.
Leaving the ECJ, quite apart from leaving the EU, is highly problematic legally. It underpins the Good Friday agreement amongst other things, and if you think a case every decade involving a Jordanian terrorist is worth unraveling the peace in Northern Ireland over, then we have to agree to disagree here.
4. Why did you give up the UK veto on further moves towards a fiscal and political union?
Why would we stand in the way of what looks as if needs doing? Particularly when we are getting a place in the European Union in which it is explicit we aren’t going to be part of ever closer union while retaining the copious advantages of a second tier membership of the EU?
Having made it clear that we wanted to opt out of ever joining the Euro, or of being part of the ever closer union deal, we couldn’t very well turn around and demand we have equal say on those particular things. It’s funny: Brexiteers like to invoke sovereignty issues while only ever seeing them from a homegrown perspective. Why should we as a country that has made it part of a renegotiation of our EU membership that we will never join the Euro or be part of any Eurozone integration have an equal say on ever closer union within that zone? We still have a say on much that happens in the Eurozone without having to be part of it, which is a pretty good deal.
5. How can you stop us from being dragged in, and from being made to pay?
This is the easiest question to answer of the bunch: because this is what the definition of the opt out Cameron negotiated means in practice. Being “made to pay” depends on what you mean, but how I think you mean it, that certainly can’t happen. We may choose to bail someone out within the Eurozone, but that will only be because we make the decision that doing so will have less impact on the UK economy than the losing of the money we transfer. So in that scenario it would be – you’ll like this – a fully sovereign nation making a choice in its own interests. For instance, in 2010, the UK government decided to loan the Irish government billions of pounds to help prop up its banks. This was painted by some outlets at the time as some sort of EU thing, but it was nothing of the kind – we reasoned that it was in our national interest and so we did it. Would we do something like that again? Of course we would. Whether we were inside the EU or out of it.
No doubt these answers will not satisfy the hardcore Brexiteers out there, but I hope it provided some background for the undecided. I can understand why the core Leavers want to look at Project Fear and state that Remain has no answers to things. I was there five years ago myself with the AV referendum and look at how that turned out in the end. I love the new alternative vote system we voted in 2015 with…..