Immigration is a boon for society, and the EU should be praised for encouraging it

Populist rhetoric is hurting Britain, writes Petros Fassoulas.

If there is one thing that the British tabloid press and populist politicians (and many others besides) get exercised with and enjoy exaggerating about even more than the EU, it's immigration. No less during a time of economic crisis when scapegoats and easy answers are on high demand.

Immigration has been a cause célèbre for the coalition since coming to power. Promises to cut numbers of immigrants, attacking foreign students, even questioning the free movement of people in the EU have been employed to appease and at the same time fuel populist sentiments. It is also used as a stick to attack the UK’s membership of the EU, which is blamed for any perceived or real increase of immigrants. Rhetoric against immigration and the EU alike has been rife recently and it has been further inflamed because Bulgarian and Romanian citizens (whose countries joined the EU in 2007) are to be given access to the British labour market at the end of the year. Senior Conservative Ministers are already creating an atmosphere of speculation around the notion that such a move will produce negative effects.

But as it’s often the case with populist causes and tabloid obsessions the facts are widely ignored. Take the charge that immigrants come here to pillage Britain’s generous welfare system, for example. Figures from an IMF Working Paper collated as recent as 2011 paint an interesting picture. When measuring the gross replacement rates (the ratio of unemployment benefits a worker receives relative to the worker’s last gross earning) in the first year of unemployment across the world, Britain fares remarkably poorly. As one works his way down this table he quickly realises that our welfare system does not look all that generous, does it?

 

Country

Gross Replacement Rate, year 1 Ranking
Netherlands 0.7 1
Switzerland 0.687 2
Sweden 0.685 3
Portugal 0.65 4
Spain 0.635 5
Norway 0.624 6
Algeria 0.612 7
Taiwan 0.6 8
Ukraine 0.56 9
Italy 0.527 10
Denmark 0.521 11
Russia 0.505 12
Tunisia 0.5 13
Finland 0.494 14
France 0.479 15
Bulgaria 0.473 16
Canada 0.459 17
Romania 0.45 18
Hong Kong 0.41 19
Austria 0.398 20
Belgium 0.373 21
Argentina 0.354 22
Germany 0.353 23
Greece 0.346 24
Azerbaijan 0.338 25
Egypt 0.329 26
Venezuela 0.325 27
Belarus 0.313 28
Israel 0.307 29
Japan 0.289 30
United States 0.275 31
Kyrgyzstan 0.255 32
New Zealand 0.254 33
Latvia 0.253 34
India 0.25 38
Korea, South 0.25 37
Uruguay 0.25 36
Uzbekistan 0.25 35
Ireland 0.238 39
Hungary 0.235 40
Poland 0.226 41
Czech Republic 0.225 42
Australia 0.21 43
Turkey 0.206 44
Albania 0.202 45
United Kingdom 0.189 46
Brazil 0.152 47
Estonia 0.132 48
Lithuania 0.117 49
Chile 0.115 50
Georgia 0.09 51

 

It is hard to imagine that the hoards of Romanians and Bulgarians the Tories, UKIP and the right-wing press fear about will ignore pretty much every other country in the EU just to come here. Their narrative would have been a tiny bit more believable if at least the weather in Old Albion was a tad better.

Another popular charge against immigrants is that “they” are a burden on Britain’s welfare system. Again, the facts seem to disagree. A study by Christian Dustman, from the UCL’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, found that in the year to April 2009 workers from Eastern Europe contributed £1.37 in taxes for every £1 of services they used. Native Britons on the other hand contributed just 80 pence for every pound of services they consumed. So, far from being a burden to our welfare system, immigrant workers make a considerable contribution to it.

What about the issue of unemployment and the way immigration impacts upon it?  Rhetoric tends to focus, especially during periods of economic contraction, on how immigrants force native Britons off the job market. But that is not necessarily the case, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research analysed the impact of immigration on the UK labour market using National Insurance registrations by foreign nationals and concluded that “there is no association between migrant inflows and claimant unemployment”. Furthermore, the NIESR tested for “whether the impact of migration on unemployment varies according to the state of the economic cycle and found no evidence of a greater negative impact during periods of low growth or the recent recession”. 

Apart from ignoring the facts and being based on scaremongering and scapegoating, the current rhetoric on immigration and the free movement of people in the EU gives the impression of a nation ready to raise the drawbridge and close itself off from the rest of the world. As a result it strands talented students and skilled labour overseas. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, warned that it is “making it difficult for universities and the City to attract talent from abroad”. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, went even further when she said, among other things, that the flurry of recent statements by senior ministers calling for a crackdown on "bogus students" had given the impression that overseas students were no longer welcome and was driving them towards competitor countries such as the US, Canada and Australia.

The Guardian newspaper quoted a study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which found that “overseas students are estimated to bring £8bn a year into the economy, a figure projected to rise to £16.8bn by 2025, according to a study”. Not a negligible sum, and one that the government’s rhetoric and policies risk jeopardising.

Immigration is neither a burden on our welfare system nor a threat to the domestic workforce, certainly not in the scale implied by certain politicians and newspapers. On the contrary, immigrants, who often take up job natives do not desire (the social care sector being a prime example) make a significant contribution to the economy (by spending on goods and services in this country and contributing to national GDP), the taxation and welfare system, the talent pool available in the labour market and last but not least the cultural wealth of Britain. Instead of demonising them we should be celebrating the role they play in this country.

Update:

Removed a paragraph incorrectly implying other countries had not yet opened their labour markets up to Romania and Bulgaria.

Photograph: Getty Images

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder