Anyone familiar with our work will know that we are very positive about the UK’s membership of the EU. Much of our work is supported through EU funding and we actively go out into the community to promote the benefits which EU membership brings to UK citizens – in terms of job opportunities, free movement, study options etc.
We have tried to bring this positive approach to our campaigning around the upcoming referendum (plenty of other groups from both sides have been promoting the negatives). However in recent weeks we have become increasingly concerned about the xenophobic and racist turn which the debate has taken. From sensationalist statements, to stories which are based on lies and designed simply to make the biggest media impact, the UK press has been awash with claims about the threat of continued migration of EU citizens to the UK.
Our work as the UK Euroguidance centre looks to support EU citizens coming to the UK, as well as British people looking to move abroad. At the same time our Info4Migrants resource helps newcomers better integrate into British society. Therefore we like to think we know a thing or two about migration and thought it was about time we spoke out about why free movement of people around the EU is not as scary or potentially destructive as certain politicians and media outlets would like you to believe.
Migrants from Eastern Europe have not ruined the UK economy
The common claim made by Brexiters during the campaign is that migrants from ‘new’ EU countries in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, have come to the UK and either taken jobs from British workers or refused to find work, instead living off our generous benefits system. Whilst it is certainly true that Britain has seen an influx of migrants from former communist states since the EU’s eastern enlargement in 2004, there is little evidence that this has had a negative impact on the UK economy…
Many EU migrants are skilled workers, who come to Britain to fill skills gaps that simply can not be filled by UK citizens. At the same time, those workers who come to fill unskilled vacancies rarely directly compete with British people. This is because unskilled jobs in the catering and hospitality sector, in agriculture and in care work (where many migrants find themselves) require long hours, flexibility as to when and where you work etc. As a result these migrants are taking jobs that British citizens do not want, rather than forcing the native population into long-term unemployment.
What is more, many of these migrants are young people with few dependants. These people rarely have need for long-term healthcare and are not making excessive use of other public services, a fact that is reflected in their supposed ‘abuse’ of the UK welfare system. In 2014, there were 4.9m working-age benefit claimants in Britain. Of these 92.6% of were British nationals, whilst only 131,000, or 2.5%, were EU nationals.
Indeed, recent HMRC figures showed that EU migrants made a net contribution to the UK economy. In the 2013/14 tax year they paid £3.1 billion in income tax, but only claimed £556 million in benefits, meaning the economy was boosted by £2.5 billion pounds.
As the native British population continues to age, these young, economically active migrants from elsewhere in the EU are exactly what we need to make sure that we are able to continue to grow as a nation.
The UK is not facing the risk of a mass Turkish (or Albanian, Macedonian etc.) migration anytime soon
One of the most misleading headlines of recent weeks has centred on the threat of mass migration from countries such as Turkey once they join the EU. Turkey has been in discussion to join the EU for almost 30 years but progress has been slow, in part due to the country’s failure to enact important domestic reforms. Whilst the recent migrant crisis from the Middle East has forced the EU and Turkey into closer cooperation on certain issues this does not mean that Turkish membership of the EU is any nearer…
There are several important political issues which would need to be overcome. For example, the Turkish domestic political landscape is still causing the EU a lot of concerns, whilst Turkey still refuses to formally recognise Cyprus – a country which Turkish forces invaded in 1974 and has been divided between the Turkish north and Greek south ever since.
Therefore, even if Turkish membership of the EU did go to a vote in Brussels, it is likely that Cyprus (if not someone else) would veto the move on human rights grounds. Even if they did not, the free movement rights which come with membership would still be subjected to the strict phased controls which faced Croatia when it joined and has seen very little migration from the EU’s newest member to the UK.
What Turkey may get is visa-free travel to the Schengen zone. However even this is looking increasingly unlikely and, if it did happen, it would not necessarily result in mass migration to the UK.
The UK is not part of Schengen’s visa scheme and so would not have to accept visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. At the same time it is unlikely that the UK would be the first choice destination for Turkish migrants. Over 20% of Germany’s foreign born population is from Turkey and Berlin is already home to the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey itself. Furthermore, there are large and well-established Turkish communities across the rest of Europe which would more likely act as migration hubs.
The same applies to many other countries across the Balkans – with membership many years away and migration controls and existing hubs meaning that the UK would unlikely be the first choice of any new EU citizens.
Being in the EU does help us control our borders
The current debates around immigration and the EU promote the idea of an open door policy for migrants. This is based on the idea that free movement within the EU means that we are unable to control who is coming through our borders.
Whilst much of continental Europe is part of the Schengen agreement, which removes checks on borders across the EU, the UK remains outside of this agreement. Therefore we are able to police our borders in a far more stringent way.
The impact of this was seen during last summer’s migrant crisis. Whilst migrants could move easily through the Schengen zone, from Slovenia up into Austria and on to Germany, those migrants trying to reach the UK were stopped from crossing the Channel due to the border checks in place.
At the same time, being within Europe also means that we are able to cooperate with our EU colleagues on a political level to further control who is allowed into the UK. Sharing a common European goal, allowed Britain and France to sign a bilateral agreement on policing the Channel, whilst EU rules surrounding asylum seekers and refugees sees the resonsibility more evenly spread across all member states.
In many ways mainland Europe acts as a buffer zone, protecting the UK’s borders. EU policies mean that few non-EU migrants reach Britain over land, as they are stopped, or choose to settle elsewhere. However, if we were to leave the EU there is no guarantee that any of our neighbouring countries would continue to police migration in the same way, opening up the potential of more migrants trying to reach the UK.
Sharing information across borders improves security
From Vote Leave’s claims surrounding terrorism to Nigel Farage’s widely condemned comments surrounding sexual assault this weekend, ‘EU migration’ seems to have come to equal ‘increased security threat’.
There is no doubt that the UK is facing terrorists and organised criminals who now operate on a global scale. However EU membership allows us to better address these threats. Our security forces are able to share surveillance and intelligence with colleagues across Europe, meaning that threats to UK security can be identified and neutralised before terrorists even reach our shores.
Equally the UK also currently benefits from being part of Europol, the police service which operates across Europe. This means that we are better placed to track and bring to justice criminals, regardless of where in the EU they commit their crime or try to hide.
Migration benefits UK people as well
One of the biggest oversights in the current debate surrounding free movement of people in the EU is the fact that very little is being said about the benefits it brings for British citizens who move to another EU member state.
The UN estimates that 1.2 million UK citizens lived elsewhere in Europe in 2015. As well as ex-pat retirees enjoying the sun in Spain, this includes a large number of young people taking advantage of study and work options.
Whilst working or studying abroad used to be the reserve of a select few, for today’s Millenial generation, international experience is a key part of their identity as members of an increasingly digital, global world. Many of them work in short-term, flexible jobs, or take part in study exchanges, before returning to the UK. However this experience is invaluable, as it boosts their CVs and allows them to build successful careers within the global market.
Immigration may have become the dominating issue in EU debates but the claims being promoted through the media are based on misleading facts and outright lies – this is not a referendum on the UK’s immigration policy but a wider decision on Britain’s membership of a multi-faceted, international organisation.
Yet, this focus on immigration also means that many of the other aspects of EU membership are being ignored. For people to make an informed decision, this misbalance needs to be readdressed, with proper, accurate facts and information taking centre stage.
As a start you can find other posts about the benefits of EU membership elsewhere on the blog…