Sunday 19 November 2017

Bogeyman rhetoric on immigration is poised to drive the UK out of the EU

Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), speaking to the media with a backdrop of a poster for his party's immigration campaign for the British general election, in St Margaret's Bay, near Dover, in March 2015.
Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), speaking to the media with a backdrop of a poster for his party's immigration campaign for the British general election, in St Margaret's Bay, near Dover, in March 2015.
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

With just days to go before British voters decide on whether to remain in the EU, the momentum appears to be behind the 'leave' campaign. Just to make things worse for the 'remain' side, the debate is focusing on the issue they have grappled with the least - immigration.

If anything, the remain side has been keen to focus on the negative economic consequences of leaving the EU and the uncertainty it may bring. The leave side has looked more sure-footed when using stereotypes and scary predictions about the implications for future immigration if the UK stays in the EU.

The remain advocates, no strangers to apocalyptic economic predictions themselves, has constantly played down concerns many British voters have about this highly emotive issue.

Instead of formulating its responses and tackling the issue head on, the British Labour Party leaflet promoting a stay vote didn't even mention immigration as an issue.

It is interesting to compare the immigration stories and experience of the UK with that of Ireland in recent years, especially since the group of 13 EU accession states became full members of the union in 2004.

Headline immigration figures in for the UK look very significant. Total net migration to the UK is running at over 300,000 per year, despite the government's target of cutting it to less than 100,000.

Official figures put net migration inflows from EU countries to the UK at 184,000 per year and non-EU at 188,000. There are around three million people from other EU countries living in the UK.

In total about 7.5 million people living in the UK are non-nationals.

This seems like an enormous figure, yet it equates to just under 12pc of the population. That is actually lower than the figure for Ireland.

One in eight people living in Ireland are non-nationals. In the decades up to 2000, only around one in 40 people here were not Irish. Our non-national population is well above the average for rich countries.

In general, migrants who have come to Ireland have worked. The pattern of migration into and out of Ireland was fundamentally altered with the economic crash but the figures show the valuable contribution migrants have made to economic growth.

In Ireland we are lucky that so many migrants who have come here have strong educational qualifications. Almost half of foreign nationals in the Irish labour force are termed "highly educated".

This is the highest in the EU and one of the highest rates in the OECD. Unfortunately, they are often under employed and actual joblessness can stem from a higher rate of unemployment among highly skilled migrants.

In the depths of the recession in 2012 when there were 80,000 non-nationals unemployed in Ireland. This was an unemployment rate of 22pc among that group, just a few per cent ahead of the 18.5pc rate among Irish people. This was despite a doubling of the non-national population between 2002 and 2011.

Ireland's response, socially and politically, has been far from perfect when it comes to dealing with the enormous influx of non-nationals during the boom years.

The vast majority of migrants come here to work. When the jobs go, many of them return home or go elsewhere.

For example, in 2010 nearly 6,000 more non-nationals left the country than came into it. This pattern continued until 2014 when the jobs market started to improve. Last year 6,600 more non-nationals came here than left.

But it isn't just about short term work patterns. Many, thankfully, are putting down long term roots here. Ireland has benefited enormously from the influx of people from across the EU. Our non-EU migrant numbers are very small. This year work permits for immigration required by non-EU nationals are up 20pc in line with greater job creation.

However, we are still talking about 6,000 last year and about 2,400 in the first four months of this year. In fact the HSE accounted for 761 of those non-EU workers as it hired doctors and nurses.

In the UK there are genuine fears about a potential explosion of immigration. Some are rational others are irrational.

The figures from the tax authorities in Britain show that in 2013/2014 migrants put in £2.5bn more than they took out in benefits. But in individual towns there are concerns about the pressure on public services, which some politicians are finding it difficult to handle.

That is why David Cameron set a target of reducing immigration to 100,000 per year, something which he had failed to do. It is hard for Cameron and others to argue that immigration is economically good, while setting a hopelessly unachievable target for reducing it.

Inevitably, the migration arguments around Brexit get caught up in the refugee arguments around the Middle East and Syria in particular.

Germany has taken in around 1.1 million migrants, mainly from Syria and the wider Middle East. It was an incredible social and humanitarian gesture but one from which the Germans will also hope to see some longer term economic gain also.

The German economy is not exactly firing on all cylinders right now and there isn't an obvious short term labour market need for one million people. However, an aging population is a big factor.

The costs for Germany of making its humanitarian gesture work on an economic level, will be significant. The government expects to spend around €93bn by the end of 2020 on costs related to the refugee crisis. Only 55pc of those Syrian migrants are expected to have a job after five years.

Around €25.7bn will be needed for jobless payments, rent subsidies and other benefits for recognised asylum applicants by the end of 2020.

Of the more than 1.1 million migrants who arrived in Germany in 2015, only around half of them have applied for asylum. Many others will not be allowed to stay. Last month German politicians began debating a new law on integration - the country's first.

It requires asylum seekers to take lessons in language, culture and values in exchange for faster access to the labour market. The state has promised to subsidise 100,000 new working opportunities, mainly for low paid workfare jobs.

Newcomers without a job will have to stay in the municipality first assigned to them. Reject these rules and they may have their social support cut. The real test may be how many of those one million end up being returned in the years ahead.

If the British vote to leave the EU, migration fears will have played a key part in the outcome. An issue that has been broadly seen as very positive for Ireland will have influenced a British decision that could end up being be very difficult for Ireland.

For us the price of deeper European and global integration is sometimes high - but still worth paying.

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