After five years of policies intended to reduce immigration, recently released figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that net migration had reached the second highest level on record and that EU Migration made up more than half of immigration to the UK. As the EU membership referendum approaches, the free movement of people is a key topic for both the Remain and Leave campaigns.
The Leave campaign argues that leaving Europe is the only way to reduce migration, while the Remain campaign argues that Brexit could have relatively limited effects on immigration to the UK.
The potential effects of Brexit
The greatest challenge in assessing the impact of Brexit on immigration is the unknown consequences of the vote, namely what relationship would replace EU membership following a UK exit?
Access to the single market
It is possible that the UK’s membership of the EU would be replaced by an association agreement that includes liberal access to the single market and therefore, continued free movement. If this happened the effects of Brexit on EU migration to the UK could be relatively limited. The Norwegian and Swiss models of EU association illustrate that, accepting the principle of EU free movement of people may be the 'price' the UK has to pay in order to gain access to the single market.
The UK-EU negotiation might be different to models agreed with other states previously, but it is reasonable to assume free movement of people will be one of the areas discussed in any negotiations to allow the UK access to the single market.
Withdrawal of the UK from the EU could potentially mean the end of free movement and the introduction of admission requirements for EU citizens who want to live and work in the UK. As a result, EU citizens may face the same immigration rules as non-EU citizens, either needing to qualify for work or family visas. Leave Campaigners want an "Australian-style system". This would mean extending the current points-based system to cover EU migrants, where entry to the UK to work is limited to skilled people deemed to be of value to the UK economy. Such rules would make it more difficult for EU citizens to live and work in the UK legally. However the counter-argument is that leaving the single market would damage the economy and potentially increase immigration; it has been reported by Britain Stronger in Europe (the official Remain campaign group) that Australia, who have a points-based immigration system, have twice as many migrants per head as the UK.
Indeed, the Social Market Foundation (in partnership with Adecco Group UK & Ireland) has conducted a study which concluded that 88% of EU migrants currently working in the UK would not qualify under the current visa rules which apply to migrants from outside the EU.
This is because the minimum annual salary for qualifying to work in the UK under a Tier 2 (General) visa is £20,800 (or more depending on the role), and for individuals, who want to bring their spouse to the UK under a family visa, they would need to meet the family income threshold of £18,600 (or more if dependent children are included in the application).
If the same immigration rules were to apply to EU citizens, then the make-up of the UK workforce could look very different.
The potential effects of remaining in the EU
David Cameron has sought to renegotiate the UK's relationship with the EU and so even if the UK remains in the EU, there will be changes and a number of these changes will have implications for the free movement of people and immigration to the UK.
The changes themselves are not to the principle of free movement of people but are changes secured to eligibility for benefits which could have a deterrent effect on any EU nationals considering a move to the UK. These changes include
For seven years an "emergency brake" can be applied. This would restrict EU migrants' access to in-work benefits for the first four years after they arrive in the UK. After the seven year period, the UK would then have to gain the approval of the European Commission and EU Member State governments to apply a break for any further period.
Out of Work Benefits
The power to deny benefits to out of work EU migrants, and deport migrants who have been unable to find employment after six months and are not self-sufficient.
Reduction of Child Benefit to the level of the migrant's home EU country. This would apply to new arrivals immediately but could also apply to existing recipients from January 2020.
These changes could have an effect on the 'attractiveness' of working in the UK and so could also lead to a shift in the make-up of the UK workforce.