Thursday, 11 May 2017

May's hard line risks wasting an opportunity to reform Europe

Syed Kamall, writing for Brexit Central, has it that before Brexit, net migration has been simply out of our control; in leaving the EU we take back that control. An assertion worthy of some examination.

When you look at the polling data from the referendum it's overwhelmingly the industrial towns sending a clear message to London. There is a clear culture clash. London gets the industrious and motivated young immigrants, but the regions get the social dumping. This though, has been a facet of immigration "policy" since well before freedom of movement.

In the same way that Belfast acquired a world class reputation for knee surgery, through institutional experience, Bradford Royal Infirmary has the same kind of experience in treating the symptoms of birth defects from inbreeding. The ugly truth about immigration is that it's not all diversity and growth - and if there is a regional disparity in attitudes it has nothing to do with levels of education as some assert. The problems are real and complaints have been dismissed as racist. In this, freedom of movement, widely understood to be open borders, was just enough to turn attitudes sour.

There is, however, a gulf between perception and reality. Eastern European migration was commonly associated with Polish plumbers but in time became associated with high end car crime, black marketeering and industrial scale fraud. What is often less acknowledged is that these criminals did not wait for the legal barriers to be brought down before making their way to the UK. Criminals are not known for their respect for the law.

So in this we have to ask the end of freedom of movement will make the slightest bit of difference. Theresa May has renewed a hitherto unmet manifesto pledge to bring net migration below 100,000 but the only thing she can really do is either bureaucratise and deter the immigration we do want or throw everything including the kitchen sink at tackling the much more difficult illegal immigration. That will come at enormous cost and is not by any means an easy hit. Case after case will be bogged down in human rights law.

The short of it is that for as long as the UK is a prosperous place the UK will be a magnet for immigration, whether it be wanted or not. Many have joked that the only sure fire way of meeting immigration targets is to make our economy less prosperous. They're not wrong - but this is the last thing we want to do.

As ever, it is the lack of holistic policy that sees immigration "out of control". There should be no immigration policy as such. The issue is "sustainable" population numbers, but that is not a policy, it is an objective. Such an objective is achieved by coordinating a series of policies, ranging from education to industry and housing, overseas aid, defence, foreign policy, which all need to be geared to achieving the desired outcome. The theme is not "immigration" as such, but policy management.

In this respect you can hardly be surprised that we voted to leave the EU. There have been any number of tools available to us to tackle the worst symptoms yet our government has continually failed to fulfil its promises and failed to meet increasingly meaningless targets. What we haven't seen is any radical moves to reforming planning or measures to curb migration at source. There are a number of unpopular choices to be made that successive governments have kicked down the road.

In this I don't doubt that Brexit frees our hand in a number of policy areas and allows us to take different approaches but if the sum total of our Brexit efforts is to institute a single "immigration policy" then we will likely find we make it harder for business to get the people it needs while ultimately doing nothing to tackle the more visible symptoms.

There are those would would like to see more stringent checks on the borders but experience shows us that many come in on entirely legitimate visas and overstay. To tackle that we are reliant on behind the border controls and tackling passport fraud. It also requires a decent network of confidential informants working in the service sector. The care sector is legendary for hiring illegals and though it is widely known we still see only sporadic efforts to stop it.

Meanwhile we have been equally poor at tackling the sort of housing overcrowding that allows foreign workers to undercut the market rates. Councils are dreadful at prosecuting rogue landlords. The prosecution rate in 2012 was less than 500 out of 1.5m landlords. Councils often won't do anything about it because if they evict they have a statutory obligation to house them, adding to an already acute problem. The overcrowding and consequent crime it brings is what generates a great deal of resentment.

Public opposition to freedom of movement is as much about public perception and direct experience than actual numbers. I don't actually see very much wrong with it except that the consequences have been mishandled by every administration since. As much as they lack a coherent grasp of the issues they show no real willingness to grasp the nettle.

Because of this we now face the very real danger of unnecessarily severing ties with the EU for the sake of "taking back control" only to to find our government is still thinking in two dimensional terms about immigration. One rather suspects though that Syed Kamall has no interest in the immigration aspect. Rather he is using the Brexit Central disinformation platform to further entrench the idea to control immigration we must leave the single market. The motive is quite clear, not least since yesterday we see yet another fact free hack job on the Norway option from them.

Interestingly, Brexit Central would have it that there is an increasing desire to leave the EEA, citing loss of sovereignty and rising costs of doing business. There is of course one minor problem with that. The EEA agreement has no Article 50. Members may leave it by giving one year's notice but unlike Article 50, there is nothing that compels the EU to negotiate a replacement. Norway would find itself staring down the barrel of the WTO option.

In true Brexiteer fashion, they have found yet another elaborate excuse to bash an alternative to EU membership without offering up anything of their own. They have, of course, missed a trick in that growing opposition to the EEA in Norway is in fact more of an incentive to remain a member of it. Hitherto now I have been an advocate of the EEA out of pragmatism in recognition of the fact that there is nothing nearly as comprehensive and nothing that fits the bill in order to seamlessly transition out of the EU. I have never made the case that the EEA is optimal.

What we would find if we did move to the "Norway option" is that we would have many of the same complaints as Norway. It is problematic to say the least. However, our combined weight would be sufficient clout to modify and reform the twenty five year old agreement.

There is an all round opportunity to explore here. The EU has never been entirely comfortable with the diverse tapestry of treaties among Efta states and has been keen to consolidate them. Brexit very well could be the catalyst for that to happen, whereby the UK joins the EEA as an Efta member, lending our weight to Norway to cut down on some of the EEA mission creep.

As part of that, there are already mechanisms available within the EEA agreement to curb freedom of movement without closing it down. A broader multilateral effort to modernise and cement those controls as something more legitimate would be achievable. With the combined clout of Efta we would be in a position to take a tough line. Here there is a real opportunity to transform European relations throughout without going to the drastic extent of leaving the single market and harming our exports -all on the huge gamble that we will see significant reductions in immigration.

The ultimate folly of Brexit Central is the belief that Brexit is a magic wand and that escaping the influence of Brussels can be done in a single bound. As the Leave Alliance said from the beginning, Brexit is a process, not an event, and if we treat it as an event then we stand to do a great deal of harm without no real way to mitigate the consequences.

There are those who would gladly take a significant hit to the economy in order to control immigration. At one time I might even have agreed with them - but only if there was some certainty in it. We would be fools to trade our prosperity on the false promise of "taking back control" only to find that, where the problems of immigration are concerned (and more besides), London, not Brussels, is the weakest link.

In most respects Brexit Central is in Brexit La-La land, adamant that we can escape the gravitational pull of the EU in no time at all and enjoy more or less all of the benefits. With simplistic nostums and a wilfully obtuse interpretation of the facts they are pressing for an unknown destination where the UK finds itself with very little leverage and few friends in Europe. Instead we could be the agent of change. We could see a genuine realignment of European politics whereby the EU gets to simplify its neighbourhood relations while ending much hostility toward it. The advantage for the UK is that we turn Brexit into a positive for both sides without losing much of what we value.

As this blog has said from the outset, Brexit of itself does not achieve all of what we want in terms of political reform. It starts the ball rolling. It is the beginning of a journey rather than an end in itself. We must recognise that we will always have a close and integrated relationship with the EU and our departure from it does not make it go away. Nor does it end the influence of the EU. It is therefore down to us to decide what shape that takes. Should we treat a full severance as a silver bullet we will likely find that it achieves very little and in the long term we will do a good deal of damage.

Like many Brexiteers I would like nothing more than to see the UK have a simpler and less restrictive relationship with the EU, but I have come to understand that there is no simplifying the inherently complex - and that we will always need complex systems of governance to fairly manage rights and resources in an integrated European economy. Total separation is undesirable and in many respect barely possible. Certainly one would only attempt such an endeavour were there a clear destination and a mandate. The ultras have neither. The have a slender win and a truckload of guesswork. As manifestos go, it is no more credible than the efforts of the Labour party. It has the potential to be equally destructive.

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