Why Brexit won’t reduce immigration to the UK

Migration has become one of the most prominent issues in the debate on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU), indeed some commentators
are suggesting it might determine the outcome of the upcoming Referendum. However, the arguments about how Brexit might influence immigration to the UK are complex, the
debate is often confused, and many of the claims deserve some scrutiny. In this brief, I review the various arguments being put forward in the debate, and consider how remaining or leaving the EU might affect immigration to the UK.

1  Will Brexit exempt the UK from EU provisions on free movement?

One of the main claims of the ‘leave’ campaign is that by leaving the EU, the UK would
be able to withdraw from provisions on the free movement of workers. However, there are reasons to question whether the UK would be able to withdraw from EU freemovement provisions while retaining full access to the Common Market. Free movement of workers is considered to be a corollary of the other ‘freedoms’: free movement of goods, and free movement of services. The mobility of EU nationals within the Single Market is seen
as a fundamental principle of the EU. Thus it is highly unlikely that the UK would be able to retain full access to the Single Market while rejecting EU rules on the free movement ofworkers. Other countries benefiting from free trade in goods and services have been obliged to accept EU rules on the freemovement of persons, including members of the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland. When Switzerland voted in a referendum in 2014 to limit mass migration, including through putting a cap on immigration from the EU, this triggered a diplomatic crisis with the EU. The EU took retaliatory measures, including withdrawing research funding from Swiss institutions. The crisis remains unresolved. The unfeasibility of the UK combining full Single Market participation with rights to limit the free movement of workers appears to be one of the reasons why the Leave camp has now withdrawn its claims that the UK would or should remain part of the Single Market.
2 Would exemption from free movement provisions enable the UK to reduce immigration?

If a UK government were no longer committed to free movement provisions, in could in principle set a cap on immigration of EU nationals. The question becomes that of whether such a cap could realistically be implemented, and how it would affect non-EU immigration.

The first point to note is that over half of current immigration (and over half of net migration) to the UK is composed on non-EU nationals. Since 2010, the Home Office has introduced a range of measures attempting to reduce non-EU immigration. However, it has proved extremely difficult – even for a Government vocally committed to reducing net migration – to bring down the level of non-EU immigration.

Would a post-Brexit government have an easier time in limiting EU immigration? One argument why this may be so is that many EU migrants arrive in the UK as job seekers, rather than coming to a specific job, and many take-up relatively low-skilled jobs that UK nationals might be able to fill. In other words, the perception is that EU immigrants are competing with UK nationals for jobs. However, recent research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests that British employers often turn to EU nationals because British workers are put off by low pay, seasonal or shift work, and hard-to-reach locations. This is also backed up by the Office for National Statistics, which suggest that 58% of EU nationals coming to the UK to work already have a job offer before they get here.

This begs the question of what effect a ban on EU immigration might have on the economy. If EU nationals are filling somany jobs, then a significant restriction of immigration would create serious labour shortages, with damaging effects for those sectors most reliant on foreign labour: process plant occupations, cleaning, food preparation and hospitality, and health. Rather than leading to a reduction in immigration, it may simply create acute shortages, which would then need to be filled by either EU or non-EU nationals.

Indeed, it is difficult to see how a UK government could substantially limit EU immigration without incurring significant economic costs, or simply necessitating  increased levels of non-EU immigration. Governments have been unable to limit non-EU immigration; and there is little suggest that EU immigration is more expendable to the UK economy. Indeed, labour market policies aimed at improving the wages and conditions of lower skilled jobs – and, crucially, policies to enforce such measures – are likely to have a greater influence on labour migration than leaving the EU.

3 Could a ban on access to welfare reduce EU immigration?

If we accept that leaving the EU would not significantly enhance the UK’s ability to reduce EU immigration, are there other ways of limiting inflows? David Cameron has sought to respond to concerns about EU immigration by reducing access to welfare. His argument,  is that limiting welfare benefits for EU migrants will help to reduce EU immigration. Indeed, Prime Minister Cameronwas able to negotiate a deal to limit welfare access at the European Council meeting in February 2016. EU member states agreed that a country could impose an ‘emergency break’ on EU immigrants accessing in-work credits in their first four years. The agreement also permits member states to index exported child benefit to the rates of the country of residence.

However, as many commentators have pointed out, the proposed measures are likely to have a limited effect. The ‘emergency brake’ would only be in place for a maximum of seven years. And it can only limit access to in-work tax benefits for newly arriving EU
immigrants, for the first four years. Moreover, the text of the deal makes clear that over this four year period, benefits should be incrementally phased in, as immigrants become more integrated into the labour market.

But more importantly, it is unlikely that a large number of EU immigrants would be affected by the provisions. As the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has found, only an estimated one in ten EU migrants claim some form of in-work tax credits, and that is typically a few years into their stay, when they settle down and have children. The Guardian has estimated that only 84,000 households would have been affected by the emergency brake had it been introduced 4 years ago. Thus there is little evidence that
these reductions would lead to a substantial change in EU immigration.

4 Will Brexit enhance UK border control?

Pro-leave campaigners have also suggested that the UK would regain sovereignty in other areas of immigration policy. For example, it is often claimed that the UK would be able to implement more robust border control, becoming more effective in stopping irregular flows from Calais, or inflows of suspected terrorists. It is important to note, however, that the UK is not a member of Schengen, and so currently has full control of its borders. EU nationals do not require visas, and in some ports of entry may benefit from expedited queues at passport control. But the UK is already fully entitled to check the passports of
every national entering its territory.

Another argument is that the UK would be exempt from a series of EU directives on immigration and asylum. Here it’s important to note that the UK has no obligation to participate in any common measures on immigration and asylum: the Government has already negotiated a special deal whereby it can choose unilaterally whether to opt
in to legislation on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, pro-EU campaigners have suggested that the UK might lose its influence over other important aspects of European immigration policy.

The UK has voluntarily opted in to a number of instruments that are considered to be in the national interest, such as the Dublin Convention for determining which member state is responsible for assessing asylum applications, and the EURODAC database of asylum applicants. The Labour Government opted into EU directives on minimum standards for asylum procedures and reception of asylumseekers, as well as the definition of who qualifies for asylum. The UK has also actively participated in measures to combat irregular migration, including directives on carrier and employer sanctions, anti-trafficking measures, readmission agreements with non-EU countries, and it has participated in joint naval patrols in the Mediterranean. These forms of cooperation are seen as being in the national interest, and it is uncertain on what terms the UK might participate in such initiatives outside of the EU.

Furthermore, pro-remain proponents suggests that should the UK restrict EU immigration, UK nationals living in other EU countries might face retaliatory
measures. If the UK puts a quota on EU immigration to the UK, British pensioners retiring to Southern Spain, or UK engineers relocating to Germany, are likely to suffer similarly restrictive measures.


The claim that leaving the EU would allow the UK to enjoy greater sovereignty over immigration and border control deserves critical scrutiny. Indeed, the evidence suggests that a focus on EU membership as the key to resolving the immigration problems is misplaced, for several reasons.
• The UK is unlikely to secure a deal that combines full access to the common market with an exemption to rules on freemovement.
• Even if the UK could negotiate such a deal, the demand for foreign labour is likely to persist, placing pressure on any government to ensure an adequate inflow of labour immigration. The current Government’s difficulty in reducing even non-EU
immigration demonstrates how difficult it is for pro-business administrations to reduce
economically beneficial forms of immigration.
• The national living wage – and, importantly, its enforcement –may have a much more
significant impact on EU immigration than the proposed reduction in welfare payments,
or even than a putative withdrawal from EU mobility provisions.

What this implies is that the answer to current concerns about EU immigration is not to limit immigration, or to limit access to welfare benefits. We need to understand the reasons why the UK labour market acts as a draw to EU immigrants. And – if this is seen as a problem– it will be necessary to find ways to better match the supply of (resident
UK) labour, and labour market demand.

As a final thought, it is quite likely that levels of EU immigration will in any case decline over the coming decade. As we saw, the highest flows are from southern European countries affected by the financial crisis. These flows are likely to recede as their
economies pick up. Polish immigration is already on the decline, and Romanian and Bulgarian immigration remains relatively modest. This implies that the focus of the debate on immigration will in the coming years shift to the question of non-EU immigration. Demand for foreign labour is likely to remain high, but concerns about EU free movement provisions as a source of unwanted immigration are likely to recede.

This blog is an extract from my new briefing paper, published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. For the full text, please see the RSE website.


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