Migration and free movement are among the top questions in the debate about the UK’s relationship with Europe and the approaching membership referendum. In a country where most migration has traditionally come from outside Europe, EU migration now makes up almost half of non-British immigration to the UK.
Following five years of policies designed to reduce immigration, quarterly statistics released at the end of August showed net migration reaching the highest level on record, taking the government ever further from its goal of reducing net flows “from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands.”
The combination of renewed debate about EU membership and the difficulty reducing UK immigration have led to discussion about whether leaving the EU will reduce migration and whether it is the only way of doing so. Some commentators have argued that leaving Europe is the only way (or the most sensible way) to reduce migration, while others have argued that Brexit could have relatively limited effects.
How would migration policies change after Brexit?
Probably the greatest challenge in assessing the impacts of EU exit on migration is the fact that we do not yet know what kind of relationship would replace EU membership.
On the one hand, it is possible that the UK’s membership of the EU would be replaced by an association agreement of some kind that included free movement. Norway and Switzerland, for example, have both implemented free movement as part of their economic cooperation agreements with the EU. If this happened in the UK, the impacts of Brexit on UK migration could be relatively limited.
On the other hand, EU withdrawal could mean the end of free movement and the introduction of admission requirements for EU citizens who want to live and work in the UK. These could take various forms, but the most obvious scenario is that EU citizens would face the same rules as non-EU citizens.
What would happen if EU citizens and non-EU citizens faced the same immigration rules?
Under this scenario, EU citizens who wanted to get on a pathway to permanent settlement in the UK would need to qualify for work or family unification. Temporary migration as a student would provide an initial route into the UK, but student visa holders need to qualify for work or family visas in order to stay on after their studies. These rules would make it much harder for EU citizens to live and work in the UK legally.
Most EU citizens who currently migrate to the UK report coming for work. In the most recent data, an estimated 66% of EU citizens moving to the UK for 12 months or more said that work was their main reason for migration, and a majority of those had a specific job lined up. A further 19% reported study as their main motivation, and 10% reported family.
Work visa rules would therefore be crucial in determining which EU citizens were still able to come to the UK. Under current immigration rules, non-EU citizen workers must usually be sponsored by an employer for a skilled job. Until recently, the skilled job had to pay at least £20,800 per year, but for various technical reasons related to the cap on skilled work visas (which means that the minimum salary varies depending on the number of applications) that level has fluctuated between £24,000 and £46,000 since June 2015.
These standards would be hard for many EU citizens to meet, particularly those from new EU member states who are strongly overrepresented in low-skilled jobs. In 2014, only about one quarter of employed EU citizens who had arrived in the UK within the past 4 years were in professional, managerial, or technical occupations that are most likely to qualify for skilled work visas, according to the Labour Force Survey. The majority of people holding these jobs were from countries that joined the EU before 2004.
The other main route that provides a pathway to settlement is family. If EU citizens faced the same rules as non-EU citizens, those who wanted to bring a spouse to the UK would need to meet the family income threshold. Under current rules, the UK-resident partner’s income must be at least £18,600, or more if dependent children are included in the application. Again, if this were to change, the low incomes of citizens of new EU member states would be a significant obstacle to family migration.
How might overall migration change?
Some EU citizens would still qualify to migrate to the UK if they faced the same immigration rules as non-EU citizens, but doing so would be much harder because of the skill and earnings requirements for both work-related and family migration.
These changes could have some second-order effects that are essentially impossible to quantify in advance. For example, many UK employers have become accustomed to the flexible supply of EU workers in low-wage jobs, and the removal of this migration route could increase the pressure for illegal migration and employment. It is also possible that immigration of EU citizens could increase in the short run in anticipation of EU exit, as people seize the opportunity to move before the rules change.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to argue that overall migration in the medium term would not be lower if significant new policy barriers were introduced. Would the reductions Brexit might bring be enough to enable the government to hit the “tens of thousands” net migration target? Not necessarily –the most recent data showed net migration of non-EU citizens at 196,000. At least under current economic conditions and policies, Brexit alone would not sufficient to bring the target within reach.
By Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, University of Oxford