Immigration has been the Leave campaign’s trump card. But how much of this is caused by misleading and confusing campaigning?
They say we will regain control of our borders with Brexit. But a quick check will show we never lost them. Free movement of people hasn’t meant the end of border control. Indeed, Britain never joined the Schengen system that provides for passport free travel in Europe. As such, the only open border we have is with the Republic of Ireland, who themselves never joined Schengen.
Yet the fact remains, free movement of people within the EU is good for us. It enables us to recruit people with vital skills. It enables our scientists to co-operate closely and conduct research with colleagues in other countries. It makes it much easier for our students to live and study in major European cities. It means we can see European football stars playing in the Premier League.
In fact, some 1.8 million Brits study, work, live and retire in other EU countries, making us a major beneficiary of free movement. Indeed, I could move to Spain pretty much as easily as a Spanish citizen moves from Seville to Madrid. I can get a job, benefit from their excellent and free health care system, open a bank account and even seek office in Spanish local elections. And I haven’t even mentioned the better weather!
The leavers point to housing shortages, hospital waiting lists, poor public transport and large class sizes to support their argument. Yes these are problems, and of course in some communities where there has been a rapid growth in population, then the numbers of people have put pressure on the local infrastructure. No one denies this.
But how we deal with this is a matter of policy. These problems have been around for years; and are happening all over the country, not just in the areas where immigration has been highest. In government, the leading leavers – Gove and his other Tory friends – haven’t been particularly bothered about social housing, hospitals and schools. Like those before it, the current government has the ability to properly fund education, improve public services; and build affordable homes. It just lacks the political will to do so, preferring instead cuts, privatisation and austerity.
Another Brexit argument is that migrants are taking other people’s jobs. Yet job vacancies are at a record high; and unemployment levels are at their lowest. Indeed, the Brexiteers conveniently ignore the fact that our NHS for example, needs migrant workers to fill vacancies for doctors, nurses and other skilled roles.
Let’s just think it through. We’ve been part of Europe for absolutely years. Free movement of people is nothing new; and studies show that the Europeans who live, work, and study here, put more into the economy than they take out. Indeed, net EU immigration was 180,000 in 2015. That’s the same as adding just one more person to a group of 500. Now I don’t know about you, but without counting, I couldn’t tell the difference between 500 people or 501.
Nor should we kid ourselves that shortcomings in our infrastructure would be solved with the money saved from leaving the EU. Firstly, the cost of EU membership is much less than 1% of total public expenditure. But the Leave campaigners – Johnson, Gove, IDS, Redwood – are all neoliberal ideologists. Their track record is for cuts and privatisation. Put another way, does anyone seriously believe there will be a public spending bonanza led by the right wing of the Tory party?
Of course in the event of Brexit, there will still be a compelling economic case to continue accessing the single market via the European Economic Area – Norway is often used as an example. If the UK stays in the single market, we will still have to pay to belong, we will still be bound by almost all the EU regulations, but we will have little say in how things are run. The real irony though, from the Leave perspective, is that by signing up to the single market, then we will also have to accept free movement of people. So are the Brexiteers misleading those minded to vote Leave, or just burying their heads in the sand?