The UK may not have left the EU yet, but Europeans are already leaving Britain. This morning’s Office for National Statistics release shows that net migration of EU citizens fell to 87,000 in the year to March 2018 – the lowest level since 2012. The drop was particularly notable among those moving to the UK “for a definite job” (down 24,000).
Though net migration of 87,000 is far from incidental (the total for all nationalities is 270,000 – nearly three times the Conservatives’ “tens of thousands” target), the trend is clear. Having peaked in June 2016 – the month of the Brexit referendum – at 189,000, EU migration is now in sharp decline.
And this is before the government has even imposed new controls on free movement (which will, if the UK leaves in March 2019, continue until at least December 2020). The causes of the UK’s unattractiveness are not hard to discern. The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit, and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are among the main deterrents.
Ministers may publicly welcome the figures, but many privately acknowledge that they come at a price. The Office for Budget Responsibility recently forecast that lower migration would cost £6bn a year by 2020-21. As well as reflecting weaker growth, reduced immigration is likely to reinforce it. Migrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits, with a net contribution of £7bn a year. An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent.
Brexit has in fact forced ministers to increasingly acknowledge an uncomfortable truth:
Britain needs immigrants. Even before the UK has left the EU, sectors that depend heavily on migrants – such as construction, social care, and hospitality – are already facing shortages (the IPPR thinktank has proposed a new pro-migration target to curb this trend). Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks.
Former Brexit secretary David Davis, for instance, conceded last year that immigration would not invariably fall after the UK leaves the EU: “I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants.”
Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its “tens of thousands” target (a level not seen since 1997), he added: “The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the National Health Service. You have to make sure they continue to work.”
Current cabinet ministers, such as Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Greg Clark, have issued similar guarantees. Brexit is fuelling immigration control nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”
In recent history, there has only been one reliable means of reducing net migration: a recession. Newcomers from the EU halved after the 2008 crash. But now, even as the economy continues to grow and employment remains at a record high of 75.6 per cent, Europeans are already shunning the UK. Both the government and voters may only miss them when they’re gone.