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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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”