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Will immigration be reduced if we leave?


Summary: Depending on the exit arrangement post-Brexit, the UK could have sufficient control over its immigration policy to reduce immigration. The UK could solely reduce non-EU net migration, but this would not deliver the Government’s ‘ambition’ of ‘tens of thousands’. The UK would also have to reduce EU net migration. It’s most likely that access to the single market will have to be sacrificed for this new found freedom but, even with this freedom, migration will not be reduced automatically. UK government action will be required to create an immigration policy that could reduce immigration.

In the final week of May immigration gained the most news coverage, overtaking the economy. It has featured heavily in TV debates and will be a big influence on how people decide to vote in the referendum. Its importance has led the Leave campaign to place it centre stage, professing that we can reduce immigration if we leave the EU, whilst Remainers argue that leaving the EU won’t make much difference to current migration levels. The following article scrutinizes these claims.

Immigration in 2015: a snapshot

Following five years of policies designed to reduce immigration, net migration to the UK rose to 333,000 in 2015, the second highest figure on record. The proportion of this migration that is from the EU has been rising steadily over the past 20 years. In 2015, EU citizens accounted for roughly half of all net migration into the UK: 184,000 EU citizens and 188,000 non-EU citizens.

Substantial net migration from the EU, which is a recent phenomenon, has been largely responsible for the recent rise in immigration. From 1991 to 2003, net migration from other EU countries to the UK was very small. But it rapidly increased from 2004, when the EU extended membership to a poorer bloc of ten nations,[1] and was further spurred from 2009, when several older EU members started to face serious economic difficulties. Between 2011 and 2015, the growth of EU immigration was driven by citizens from older EU members that have economic difficulties (Spain, Italy and Portugal), and newer members with lower median incomes (Poland, Romania and Hungary). In 2015, 68% of EU migrants came for work, 21% to study and 11% for family reasons. The possibility of employment, higher wages or both, seem to be the strongest stimuli of recent EU migration into the UK.

The UK’s current immigration policy

Currently, EU citizens have much more freedom to immigrate into the UK compared to non-EU citizens. Under the free movement of people principle, EU citizens and their family members have the right to move and reside freely within the territory of EU member states.[3] Under EU law, the UK cannot cap or limit the numbers of EU/EEA nationals that immigrate into the UK.

There are limitations to this free movement. An EU citizen can stay in a host country for up to three months, provided that they do not become an ‘unreasonable burden’ on the host country’s social security system. After three months, EU citizens cannot remain in the UK unless they have a job, are students, or have sufficient economic means to support their stay. However there are many exceptions, created by EU legislation, that restrict the UK government’s ability to refuse entry or expel EU citizens who do not fulfil these conditions.[5]

Post-Brexit negotiations

There are a number of ways the UK could theoretically reduce immigration if it left the EU: cut non-EU immigration, cut EU immigration or cut both.

The first option is open to the UK regardless of whether we leave the EU, and it would deliver possible reductions in immigration. However, solely cutting non-EU immigration would not deliver the Government’s ‘ambition’ of ‘tens of thousands’: net migration from the EU was 184,000 in 2015. In addition, because the UK cannot place limits on EU/EEA immigration, the level of EU/EEA migration is always unpredictable. As a result, the UK government cannot commit to specific immigration targets nor sufficiently plan its public services.

To commit to specific targets the UK would need to gain sufficient control over EU/EEA migration. To gain this control, the UK would need to opt-out or abolish EU free movement rules. Whether this will happen depends on what is negotiated between the UK and EU post-Brexit. Some exit options offer this opportunity, whilst others don’t.

If the UK wanted to retain full access to the single market (EEA), it may be able to join the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and then join the EEA, as Norway have done.[6] However as an EEA member, Norway must apply the same free movement rules as EU member states whilst having no vote on the rules. If the UK chose this route, it is likely that cutting EU/EEA immigration would still be against EU free movement rules. This is because all countries that currently have full access to the single market have had to adopt the free movement of persons. There wouldn’t be any significant new restrictions on EU immigration, nor any noticeable change in migration levels from the EU.[7]

The UK could also join EFTA without joining the EEA or the EU, as Switzerland has done. The Swiss have gained access to the single market via bilateral trade agreements with the EU, however this access is less comprehensive compared to EU/EEA membership.[8] EU laws which make limiting EU/EEA migration illegal, applying to the UK, do not apply to Switzerland. Instead, one of the bilateral agreements agreed between the Swiss and EU, the Free Movement of Persons Agreement, removed restrictions on EU citizens wishing to live or work in Switzerland. As a result, Switzerland became fully integrated into the EU’s free movement rules.

In 2012, proportionate to their populations, Switzerland accepted four and a half times more EU migrants than the UK. Because of these high numbers, in 2014 the Swiss voted in favour of strict quotas on foreigners via a referendum. The EU felt that quotas would violate the terms of their free movement treaty with Switzerland. As a result, Switzerland was kicked out of the EU’s Erasmus Plus student exchange programme and Horizon 2020. It seems that, for the level of access that Switzerland has to the single market, the EU demands it adheres to the free movement principle. If the UK wanted similar levels of access, accepting free movement of persons may be a necessity.

The UK could also pull out of the EU and negotiate a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU. This would grant less access to the single market compared to the EFTA or Swiss option, but the UK would be pulling out of the EU and ending free movement. Many countries have FTAs with the EU without free movement of people but, unlike these countries, the UK will be moving from a position where free movement of people has previously applied. This could make it more difficult for the UK to negotiate an FTA without free movement of people, especially because it’s highly likely that what is negotiated under Article 50 will have to be ratified by all EU member states. Some of these states rely heavily on free movement with the UK.

If no FTA can be negotiated, the UK could pull out of the EU altogether and trade under WTO rules. This grants even less access to the single market, however free movement rules would not apply to the UK.

Government policy

If the UK gained adequate control over EU migration, government action would still be required to reduce it. Whilst government policy is nigh impossible to predict, looking at current non-EU immigration policy could offer an insight. If the UK made it compulsory for EU citizens to meet the same criteria as non-EU citizens, this could significantly reduce EU immigration. This is because the majority of EU citizens are coming for work, and the majority of EU citizens who’ve recently arrived are not in jobs that would meet the skill criteria that apply to non-EU citizens.

It must be noted that even with these restrictions, net non-EU migration in 2015 was 188,000 in 2015. Therefore, this new immigration policy wouldn’t deliver the tens of thousands that the Conservatives pledged in 2010 and again in 2015. But theoretically, pulling out of the EU and ending free movement would give the UK government the ability to meet this pledge. Whether the next government does so will depend on their political will, public opinion and the outcome of future general elections.

  •  Christian Stensrud – EU Research Fellow


[1] In 2004, the EU extended membership to ten countries: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

[3] According to Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), ‘every person holding the nationality of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union.’

[5] For example, EU nationals can stay after three months if they are jobseeking and have a genuine chance of finding work. Also, EU citizens cannot be automatically expelled if they need social assistance benefits. In practice, member states can usually only expel EU citizens on the grounds of public security, public health or public policy, although even on these grounds there are exceptions.

[6] The EEA Agreement allows three of the four EFTA members, who are not members of the EU, to participate in the single market: Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

[7] This option is a possibility considering some pro-Remain MPs are considering using their Commons majority to keep Britain inside the EU single market if there is a vote for Brexit.

[8] For example, the Swiss have less access for their financial services and restricted ‘passporting’ rights.


Photo: Crown copyright

Photographer: Arron Hoare