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Why it's time to end EU free movement

Vince Cable makes the liberal case for immigration controls.

Article 50 and Brexit loom. “Taking back control” starts with immigration control, ending free movement inside the European Union. For the Remain resistance movement, that freedom has been a fundamental principle, to be defended to the last.

All my instincts are to defend the freedom to work, study and retire anywhere within the EU. I was (and am) a Remainer. I value diversity and have a diverse multi-ethnic family. I have spent half a century campaigning against anti-immigrant prejudice, from Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” to the Turkish “hordes” of the referendum campaign.

I spent five years as secretary of state battling the Tories’ foolish net immigration target and damaging restrictions on overseas students and workers. As a liberal economist, I welcome freer trade and globalisation in general; and as a political liberal I oppose attempts to fence people in. I naturally value the freedom to travel around Europe for business or pleasure with minimal restriction.

But I have serious doubts that EU free movement is tenable or even desirable. First, the freedom is not a universal right, but selective. It does not apply to Indians, Jamaicans, Americans or Australians. They face complex and often harsh visa restrictions. One uncomfortable feature of the referendum was the large Brexit vote among British Asians, many of whom resented the contrast between the restrictions they face and the welcome mat laid out for Poles and Romanians.

British opposition to immigration is mainly colour-blind. Until well into the 1990s “immigration” was code word for race. But in recent years concerns over immigration have been precisely that. The question has become: is unrestricted immigration – albeit from some countries only – desirable?

The economics are ambiguous. Seen globally, more migration is undeniably a positive. People moving from high unemployment, low productivity countries to areas of labour scarcity and higher productivity produce economic gains. But the benefits accrue mainly to migrants themselves (and business owners). For the receiving country, the benefits are less obvious: a bigger economy but not necessarily a richer one. Immigrants may be more productive than indigenous workers but they have dependents too. They are usually young people and therefore likely to be more flexible, more mobile and more likely to work contributing more in tax than they take out in benefits and subsidised services. But they grow older so these benefits are non-recurring.

There are also distributional effects. Critics complain that immigrant workers depress wages and reduce job opportunities for natives. Undoubtedly, this happens in some occupations, like building and taxi driving. But there are other areas where immigrants are not competing and bring complementary skills, creating jobs. When I was secretary of state I commissioned studies to evaluate this. The conclusions were sufficiently reassuring that the Home Office blocked my department’s wish to publish them. Losers, however, there undoubtedly are.

The economic arguments are not conclusive but, on balance, favour some net migration of younger, skilled workers. More liberal Brexiteers concede that point. It is also reasonable for Remainers to accept that there should be controls, as for non-EU migrants. That is also where public opinion is. Long-term social survey analysis suggests that the demand for effective immigration control coexists with greater tolerance of diversity.

There is no great argument of liberal principle for free EU movement; the economics is debatable; and the politics is conclusively hostile. The argument for free movement has become tactical: it is part of a package that also contains the wider economic benefits of the single market. Those benefits are real, which is why the government must prioritise single market access and shared regulation. Yet that may not be possible to reconcile with restrictions on movement. The second-best option is customs union status, essential for supply chain industries.

I do not see much upside in Brexit, but one is the opportunity for a more rational immigration policy. First, it will involve legitimising the position of EU nationals already here. It must involve a more sensible way of dealing with overseas students, who are not immigrants and benefit the UK. The permeability of the Irish border must lead to a united Ireland in Europe. And, not least, there can be a narrative in which control on labour movements is matched by control on capital – halting the takeovers that suffocate the innovative companies on which the country’s future depends. 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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