By Alfred Wong

On 25 March 1957, under the Mannerist frescoes of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, the leaders of six European nations signed the Treaty of Rome. On that day, the European Economic Community was created, making the free movement of people in Europe a reality which endures to this day.

Today, migration in the European Union (EU) has become highly controversial, not least in the United Kingdom. According to the Financial Times, a majority of the British population now name immigration as their top concern. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which calls for Britain to leave the EU and for drastically reducing immigration, has become one of the major forces in British politics in less than five years. Anti-immigrant rhetoric about Britain being “swamped” by immigrants now come not from the far-right fringe, but from government ministers.

Much of this debate revolves around migration into the UK from the EU. Since this is based on the free movement principle, EU immigration has continued unabated despite the controversy. But what is often neglected is the impact of this debate on non-EU migrants to the UK. These migrants range from students at university and doctors in the National Health Service (NHS), to workers on construction sites and asylum seekers fleeing persecution. In fact, net migration from outside Europe has always exceeded that from Europe: according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), 265,000 non-EU citizens migrated to the UK between March 2013 and March 2014, compared to 136,000 EU citizens.The negativity suffusing EU immigration as a political issue has led to policies and perceptions which instead harm non-EU migrants, and which harm the UK as well.

Too much of a good thing? – EU immigration to the UK

EU immigration to the UK became a political flashpoint in 2004, when net migration (immigration minus emigration) from the EU more than doubled to 130,000, according to the ONS. This was caused by the EU A8 countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) joining the EU in May 2004. Since then, public concern over immigration and EU free movement has grown. In 2013,  British Social Attitudes reported that 77% of people wanted immigration reduced “a little” or “a lot,” with 56% wanting the latter. This was due to the low skills and different culture of new migrants, which caused growing unease over the displacement of low-skilled British workers, the provision of benefits to migrants, and the problems with integrating EU A8 nationals. The UK government’s constitutional inability to stem the influx of EU migrants has further stoked resentment amongst a plurality of the public.

Nigel Farage, Photo Credit: European Parliament, Flickr CC. License available here.

Nigel Farage, Photo Credit: European Parliament, Flickr CC. License available here.

The political consequences of EU immigration is most notably seen in the meteoric rise of UKIP, a eurosceptic party whose anti-immigrant stance resonates with as much as 25% of the British electorate. UKIP wants to bring net migration from both inside and outside the EU to 50,000 a year, and admit only the most skilled and valuable migrants through an Australian-style points-based system. Its most recent electoral success was the May 2014 European elections which UKIP won with 27.49% of the vote. This was the first time in its history that UKIP had won a nationwide election, upending the British political establishment in the process. But the more pernicious effect of growing xenoscepticism in politics is the increasing influence of Eurosceptic backbench Members of Parliament (MPs) within the main political parties. The Conservative Party in particular is riven between pro- and anti-EU MPs. In January 2014, the coalition Conservative-Liberal Democrat government faced a rebellion from 87 Conservative MPs over its Immigration Bill, who voted against it for being too soft on immigration. The Immigration Bill had previously been criticized by various lobbies for being too harsh, most notably in requiring private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants or face fines. While the bill still passed, this event reflects growing political support for ever-stricter immigration policies to assuage public concerns over EU immigration.

‘Tens of Thousands’ – How This Affects British Policy on Non-EU Migrants

In response to public opinion and the increasingly anti-immigrant political climate, the British government under the current coalition has toughened its policies and rhetoric on immigration. The first and most prominent example of this was the Conservative Party’s 2010 campaign promise to bring net migration down to the “tens of thousands” by 2015. However, the fact that Britain cannot restrict EU immigration without breaking EU law meant that the coalition government’s only option to fulfil its pledge was to instead restrict non-EU immigration. This resulted in various policies aimed at reducing the number of non-EU immigrants of all types.

A prime example is the tightening of immigration policy for students, which is particularly important because students are the single largest group of non-EU migrants. The most significant policy change was the closing of the Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) visa to new applicants in 2012. This had previously allowed non-EU graduates of UK universities to work for up to two years. Instead, students may now stay only if they have a job offer with a starting salary of at least £20,300 from a company licensed and willing to sponsor them. There are signs that more curbs may be in the offing: in December 2014, the Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May stated that she supported requiring foreign students to leave Britain on expiry of their student visas, which means that they will have to reapply for new work-based visas from their own countries. All this has a deleterious effect on the attractiveness of UK higher education. According to a 2013 British Council survey of prospective international students, the most important factor in selecting a country for study was future career prospects. The stricter conditions for working after graduation directly worsens career prospects for non-EU university students. This move also has a considerable impact on the UK economy. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has argued that the new policy is “far less” simple and competitive, and that the £20,300 minimum salary was too high to ensure sufficient STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates for UK employers. The result is that, according to the ONS, the number of non-EU students staying for more than 12 months has fallen from approximately 240,000 in 2010 and 2011 to 177,000 in the year ending March 2014.

The Rest of the Iceberg – The Impact on British Rhetoric on Immigration

While the coalition government’s immigration policy is detrimental to the UK in and of itself, the arguably greater harm from the debate over EU immigration comes not from concrete policies, but from the resulting anti-immigrant rhetoric. This creates an international impression of a Britain which does not want immigrants, which at best damages the UK’s standing abroad, and at worst diminishes its attractiveness to would-be migrants around the world.

The problem stems from the political sphere, with the ever-harsher rhetoric on immigration across the political spectrum. While this is to be expected from far-right politicians running on anti-immigration platforms such as those in UKIP, such remarks are increasingly mainstream, though thankfully still widely condemned. The most recent example was the Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Fallon stating in October 2014 that parts of Britain faced “being swamped by huge numbers of migrant workers,” and that some towns “[felt] under siege from large numbers of migrant workers.”  While he later apologised, former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett has also supported his statement. Luminaries from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Archbishop Desmond Tutu have spoken out against toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric in British politics, especially during the run-up to Romania and Bulgaria entering the EU free movement area on 1 January 2014. As both the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and the Parliamentary group Conservatives for Managed Migration have warned, such sentiments create international perceptions of the UK as unwelcoming to foreign migrants, whether intentionally or not.

The media coverage of both EU and non-EU immigration have also been, with some exceptions, inordinately negative. A study by the Migration Observatory at Oxford University found that the most common descriptor for the word “immigrant” in British national newspapers from 2010-12 was “illegal.” The most common geographical descriptors were “EU” and “Eastern European.” Moreover, numbers (‘million’ and ‘thousand’) and water metaphors (‘flood,’ ‘influx’ and ‘wave’) were consistently common descriptors for migrants in all newspaper types. Another study by the same organization found that in 2012-13, when the UK immigration debate centered on the imminent entrance of Romania and Bulgaria into the EU free movement area, tabloid newspapers most often focused on “crime and anti-social behaviour” when describing Romanians. This may have contributed to the finding by Ipsos Mori that between 2006-10, there is a consistent 50% gap between the percentage of people concerned about immigration as a national issue, and the percentage concerned about it in their local area.

While a direct causal link has not been conclusively proven, this may also provide an explanation to an inconsistency in public views on immigration. While a large majority of the public want immigration reduced, they also have starkly contrasting views about different types of migrants. Yougov found that 71% and 68% of Britons favour increasing the immigration of wealthy investors and university students respectively. Conversely, 72% are against increasing low-skilled labor immigration. This reflects a divergence between public perceptions of immigration to the UK, and the reality. The most widely held belief among Britons about the most common motive for immigration is “EU citizens coming to the UK to work”, at 40% of respondents to the British Social Attitudes Survey. Conversely, only 7% believe that the most common reason is to study at UK universities, and 10% that it is non-EU citizens coming to the UK to work.

What this means is that while British people are broadly supportive of some types of immigrants, they do not think that these are the predominant types. According to this logic, it follows that immigration policy should focus on cracking down on the less beneficial types of migrants. The problem with this is that the stricter policies and rhetoric that ensure also make the UK less attractive to prospective non-EU skilled migrants and students. The resulting dwindling of these migrant flows is bad for both Britain and prospective migrants to Britain.

Of course, none of this means that the EU principle of free movement is detrimental to the British national interest because it reduces non-EU immigration, as UKIP leader Nigel Farage has argued. EU immigrants provide tremendous value to the UK, in economic, fiscal, cultural, and more ways than can be described here. What is needed are policies which solve voters’ concerns about immigration, but which also harness the benefits brought by immigrants from both within and without the EU. Anxieties over NHS capacity should be dealt with by reforming the NHS, rather than scapegoating immigrants’ usage of it. Worries about well-paying British jobs should be tackled by creating more jobs, rather than preventing immigrants from obtaining them. There are definite costs to hosting immigrants, but Britain needs to realise that the benefits outweigh those costs.

Featured Image: Paul Townsend, Flickr CC. License available here