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01 December 2015

CER: Britain, immigration and Brexit

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If the UK quits the EU, it will be because British politicians have pandered to anti-immigrant sentiment rather than addressing the supply-side failures that drive it.

If Britain votes to leave the EU it will be because of hostility to immigration. It will not be because of the threat of eurozone caucusing, the role of national parliaments vis-a-vis the European Parliament, regulatory threats to the City of London or concerns over the competitiveness of the EU economy. Disillusionment with the EU has risen in the UK because membership has become synonymous in many voters’ minds with uncontrolled immigration. Why has immigration, in particular EU immigration, become so toxic an issue in the UK that it could cost the country its membership of the Union?

Net immigration into the UK has picked up strongly over the last couple of years as the country’s economic recovery has gained momentum and sucked in workers from elsewhere. But contrary to much of the British press coverage, net immigration into the UK over the last 15 years has not been exceptional in an EU context.  [...]

So why has EU immigration become so toxic? One reason is probably because British workers’ real wages fell sharply between 2008 and 2014, with those on low wages suffering the biggest falls. There is little evidence to suggest that EU immigration as opposed to a deep recession caused this, but in the popular mind there is a causal link between migrants and falling wages.

Another reason is housing. House-building in the UK has lagged behind demand for 35 years. [...] In many parts of the country, prices are out of reach for people on average incomes, let alone low paid workers. [...] Many blame immigrants for this state of affairs, but the real culprit is an egregious failure of public policy.

Immigrants are also blamed for putting the National Health Service (NHS) and education services under pressure. [...] The problem is again public policy: the supply of public services is too slow to respond to increased demand for them. [...]

A final factor behind rising hostility to immigration is the diminishing social status of the white working class. There has been a marked improvement in average educational attainment in the UK in recent years, but this improvement has largely passed by white working class households. [...] Britain has an admirable record of integrating immigrants, but is proving weak at addressing the problems of poor white citizens.

In short, attitudes to immigration are being fanned by the failure of successive governments to tackle the country’s real problems: housing, the poor educational performance of the white working class and the financing of public services. Immigrants, in turn, have become an easy scapegoat for politicians of nearly all persuasions. It is easier to blame them than address the chronic policy failures driving the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment. [...]

[...] The reason anti-immigrant sentiment is focused on EU migration as opposed to immigration from outside the EU is simple: complaining about Polish immigration is not seen as racist in the way complaining about black or Asian immigration is. [...]

The EU faces serious challenges, from eurozone governments’ failure to get on top of the problems of the eurozone to the inability of EU institutions to bridge the gap between themselves and ordinary EU citizens. But if the UK leaves the EU, the reason will be of British politicians’ own making: popular hostility to immigration. [...]

Full article on CER


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