By James Melville.
Immigration concerns were the main reason given by the vast majority of voters who voted to leave the EU at the EU referendum. According to a 2018 Kantar poll, the reason to leave the EU that scored the highest average rank (39% of Leave voters) was ‘to regain control over EU immigration’. But Leave voters wrongly attributed their concerns on uncontrolled immigration by blaming the EU and freedom of movement. This crass and misplaced logic was fuelled by the constant manipulative dog whistling of the right-wing media and the likes of Nigel Farage and his odious ‘Breaking Point’ EU referendum campaign poster.
I see immigration as a force for the good that reflects liberal and internationalist values. I feel that a country that embraces immigration embraces an outward-looking confidence in itself. But, I also recognise that many people see immigration as a problem. But those who do have a problem with immigration should at least blame the correct sources of the problem. With immigration, any blame shouldn’t be attached to the EU, but instead towards successive UK governments who have failed to implement EU directives on immigration since the EU freedom of movement directives were instigated in 2004. The EU laws on immigration are the very essence of structured and controlled immigration.
The freedom of movement EU directive allows for older EU member states to restrict the rights of migrants from newer EU member states (Eastern Europe) for up to 7 years. The powers vary from stopping migration completely or allowing only for selected categories of work on a work permit basis. The UK was one of only 3 of the original EU members (UK, Sweden and Republic of Ireland) not to enforce transitional restrictions on EU migrants. By not implementing the restrictions the UK invited a huge increase migration from new Eastern European EU member states. They could have avoided any increase of migration and the subsequent xenophobic tabloid backlash that followed.
UK governments since 2004 also failed to adhere to the EU freedom of movement directives on welfare and benefits for migrants. The directive enables EU member states to adopt the necessary measures to refuse, terminate or withdraw any right conferred in the event of abuse of rights or fraud, such as marriages of convenience. Article 35 of the directive grants member states the power, in the event of abuse or fraud, to withdraw any right conferred by the directive as well as the power to remove migrants from member states as well as having the ability to prosecute for fraud. Once again, UK governments have not used this power. The UK does not even fully track or even know how many migrants are using the welfare system and therefore, is unable to enforce the EU directive on this.
Other EU members insist on migrants proving that they can support themselves. For example, Belgium requires all migrants to prove they have sufficient funds, health insurance and suitable housing.
Under EU law, after 3 months, EU migrants need to be working, have official registration or have funds to live. If not, they can be returned to their home country. The UK doesn’t do this, nor does it register migrants as they arrive.
The EU have a set of rules that regulates controlled migration across member states, but the UK doesn’t apply them. Other EU countries use the EU controlled immigration directives. The UK fails to do so. It is entirely likely that millions of people voted for Brexit because successive UK governments were unwilling to use these significant existing powers of controlled immigration that were created by the EU under freedom of movement. And due to a lack of knowledge about who to blame, Leave voters blamed the EU for uncontrolled immigration despite the fact that the EU actually provided a set of solutions for this. Instead, Leave voters should have been asking hard questions as to why the UK government had failed to implement the EU directives on immigration.
As Prime Minister and Home Secretary at the time of the EU Referendum, David Cameron and Theresa May should have been articulating all of this but they failed to do so. Because if they had, they would have been opening up their own culpability for ignoring EU laws on immigration – which are far tighter than the UK’s own laws on immigration.
Uncontrolled immigration? Don’t blame the EU. Blame the UK Government.