Saturday

19th Oct 2019

Column / Brexit Briefing

Turning the EU migration debate on its head

  • "Hello? LSE calling ... the economics of migration is on the EU side" (Photo: Dave Collier)

The momentum appears to have shifted – at least in the minds of political leaders and the business community.

A series of opinion polls this week suggested the "Remain" in the EU campaign has opened up a five to 10 point lead, prompting the Britsh pound to jump to its strongest rate against the euro in three months.

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  • Even the US appeal to stay in the EU fell on deaf ears (Photo: Georgina Coupe)

So hope and pro-European sunshine are winning the day?

Not exactly.

If Boris Johnson deservedly earnt the wrath of European Council boss Donald Tusk and countless others for a crass comparison of the EU and Nazi Germany - his latest piece of witless scaremongering - the Remain campaign has hardly covered itself in glory.

David Cameron’s risible warning that Brexit could lead to another war in Europe was, predictably, dismissed by roughly nine in 10 voters, according to this week’s polling data.

If a largely negative campaign could still win the referendum for continued EU membership, it is unlikely to deliver the decisive victory needed to put the question to bed for a generation.

Indeed, Johnson and Nigel Farage, the head of the eurosceptic Ukip party, have hinted that a narrow win for Remain could leave the door open for a second referendum a few years down the line.

“A 52-48 referendum … would be unfinished business by a long way,” Farage said on Tuesday (17 May).


The prospect of a second vote is almost as dispiriting as the quality of the current campaign.

In a speech on Tuesday (17 May), Labour’s finance spokesman John McDonnell urged his party to "rescue" a campaign that had become "extremely negative on both sides".

“Instead of a Tory vision of fear, we need a Labour vision of hope,” he said, emphasising the need for EU membership to protect the interests of students and graduates.

“Our young generation are mobile and see Europe as a land of opportunity,” he said.

A low turnout still offers the best chance of a Brexit vote. Seventy six percent of Leave supporters say they will definitely vote on June 23 compared with 59 percent of Remain backers.

Eurosceptics have been waiting for this referendum for years and will put a cross next to Leave with a determination that snaps the lead in the pencil.

Under-30s need someone to make a positive case for Europe if they are going to vote for it. Demonstrating the value of freedom of movement would be one way to do that.

If the Remain campaign is having much the better of the economic arguments, largely because Leave are struggling to offer a convincing vision of economic conditions post-Brexit, public fear of EU migration has been effectively weaponised by the eurosceptics.

The most potent argument, used by former work and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith on Sunday (15 May), is the contention that low-paid or unemployed British workers are being "forced to compete with millions of people from abroad for jobs, and they suffer downward pressure on their wages".

On the face of it this sounds convincing. But the evidence suggests it isn’t.

The fallacy that migration from the EU, and of refugees, has reduced wages and put extra strain on public services has been exposed by several authoritative studies by the London School of Economics (LSE), and by Phillippe Legrain, a former economic advisor to ex-European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.

“Investing one euro in welcoming refugees can yield nearly two euros in economic benefits within five years,” Legrain contends in a report on the economic input of refugees

Meanwhile, the LSE study, entitled "Brexit and the Impact of Immigration on the UK", concludes that the communities in Britain to have seen the biggest rises in workers from Europe have not suffered sharper falls in pay or seen a bigger reduction in job opportunities than other parts of the country.

“The bottom line, which may surprise many people, is that EU immigration has not harmed the pay, jobs or public services enjoyed by Britons,” said Jonathan Wadsworth, a co-author of the report.

“For the most part it has likely made us better off. Far from EU immigration being a necessary evil that we pay to get access to the greater trade and foreign investment generated by the EU single market, immigration is at worse neutral and at best, another economic benefit.”

Making a positive case for freedom of movement and migration, or at least dispelling the myth that it is driving down wages and living standards, is vital to the Remain campaign. Doing this successfully would neutralise the Leave camp’s trump card.

“The honest and straightforward truth is that we need migration … they provide a multi-billion pound tax surplus,” said McDonnell on Tuesday.

“The right to travel and work is a fundamental right … we do not want a Europe of closed borders and barbed wire,” he added.

McDonnell, and the Labour party in general, have been peripheral figures in the campaign so far. But a positive message, particularly on immigration, is not before time.

Hopefully, it will cut through into the wider campaign.

"Project Fear" - the Leave side's tag for the Remain side's argument - might win the referendum on 23 June, but it won’t settle the debate.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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