The political arguments around EU membership and migration have the qualities of children’s playdough: eye-catchingly bright, highly malleable, and good to keep us busy for a while. Unfortunately, also like children’s playdough, they turn dull and crusty, and have a tendency to fall to bits if left out in the air too long.
From 2014-2015 David Cameron and his Eurosceptic Work & Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith, pursued a strategy of restricting benefits to EU migrants. In its first phase, this was a ‘domestic’ strategy: it focused on changing UK benefit regulations for EU migrants. Accordingly, there were 11 changes to benefit administration rules from January 2014 to the end of 2015, all designed to make it difficult for EU migrants to access social benefits. None of these measures required new legislation, and they were entirely in accordance with EU law and regulations. No-one from the EU had ever stopped the UK from introducing these regulations, and restricting access to benefits for migrants was not something that had been high on voters’ agendas.
So how did the agenda get there and what purpose was served by these measures?
Well, the topic of migration was on voters’ agendas. Cameron and IDS chose to make a rather spurious and inflammatory, but politically convenient argument: that high levels of benefit (not true) and easy access to benefit (not true) in the UK made it uniquely attractive as a destination for EU migrants (not true). They then showed that the government ‘was doing something’ to restrict EU migration by restricting access to benefits.
Yet the changes in regulations, and the arguments justifying them, achieved a number of other things too. They added an easy rhetorical boost to the government’s wider anti-welfare agenda, which assumes that people in receipt of benefits (unless they are pensioners) are frequently fraudulent, and need punitive treatment. In doing so, they enhanced the generalised fictitious division of society into ‘hard-working families’ and ‘welfare scroungers’. This is important because the identity of ‘hard-working families’ is so central to the Conservatives’ political positioning. (The division is fictitious because many ‘hard-working families’ are also in receipt of social benefits for disability, care, or by virtue of being in low-paid jobs and overpriced housing markets. Their family members also experience spells of time without work.) The benefit regulation changes also dovetailed neatly with demands for budget cuts, especially to housing benefit, which is paid out by severely cash-strapped local authorities.
So it turns out that the argument about ‘migration and benefits’ was only partly about EU migrants. They in any case tend to have higher employment rates than UK citizens, making them more ‘hard-working families’ than ‘welfare scroungers’. However, it set up the context for Cameron’s campaign to ‘re-negotiate’ the UK’s membership of the EU in the run-up to the referendum.
This campaign, which really got underway in 2015, developed a new theme: restricting access to in-work benefits (formerly known as tax credits). The negotiations eventually garnered agreement that member states can invoke an ‘emergency brake’ on the rights of free-moving workers. What this means in practice is that the UK can argue that it faces problems from the migration of EU citizens to the UK, for example with pressure on housing or public services. If such a case is acknowledged by other member states, it can restrict new entrants’ access to tax credits. It still cannot restrict EU citizens’ right to enter, reside and work in the UK. However, this is a very unsavoury political agreement. Let’s see why.
By excluding new EU migrants from tax credits for four years, those same ‘hard-working’ migrants who were previously distinguished from the ‘welfare scroungers’, are corralled into a (more) subordinate position in the UK labour market, along with 18-24 year-olds. New EU migrants in low-paid employment will end up with lower household income than equivalent UK workers and already-resident EU nationals. The number of migrants to the UK will only be affected at the margins, if at all. EU migrants come to the UK for many reasons, but those in low-paid jobs – i.e. those of concern to the government – take up such employment in a labour market that thrives on the availability of lower-paid and flexible workers. Excluding new migrants from tax credits makes no difference to these wider conditions. Except that now those new migrant workers will have to work even more hours to stay above the poverty line. The planned gradual increases to the minimum wage for over-25s will eventually raise such EU workers’ incomes, but it is clear that the ‘emergency brake’ was more about benefits and public expenditure cuts than it was about reducing incentives for migration.
For the Bremain camp, the ‘emergency brake’ satisfies, as it needed to, the foundational requirement in the EU for free movement of workers. This requirement was in place before the UK even joined the EU, and it has been more highly specified over the years, as a key attribute of ‘barrier-free’ trade and the single market. Yet it is precisely this requirement that exposes the contradictory position loudly pursued by the Brexit camp, mostly, but not only, from the right.
Such Brexiteers want to restrict migration from the EU, and reject the brake as inadequate. Yet they also want access to ‘barrier-free’ trade and the single market. Without free movement of workers, however, there is no barrier-free trade. Of course, any outcome of a leave vote is deeply uncertain, because it is subject to negotiation with the other 27 members of the Union. However, no other state with access to the single market has negotiated out of the requirement for free movement of workers. The terms of a looser trade agreement would permit restrictions on migration, although the terms of such an agreement are, if anything, more uncertain.
It seems that the malleable political arguments about migration and the EU are, in the end, rather straightforward. They are, broadly speaking: how can we restrict migration from the EU versus how can we claim to be restricting migration from the EU (by cutting benefits)?
Migrants to the UK, whether from the EU or elsewhere, contribute to its social life and its public services, as well as to its economy, as doctors, dentists, nurses, carers, cleaners, coffee-shop staff, beauticians, factory workers, farm workers, pharmacists, restaurant staff, academics, bus and delivery drivers, warehouse packers, teaching assistants, oh yes – and plumbers. There are, of course, real challenges to public services when faced with a growing population and public budget cuts. There are challenges for the UK economy faced with growing its employment through precarious, low-paid and low-skill work. There are challenges for workers and communities facing such job opportunities, from school leavers to debt-burdened graduates. But these challenges are not caused by migrants from the EU. They are shared by migrants from the EU. They are also shared by many EU citizens in their home countries. It is time to put the playdough political debate about migration behind us and retrieve a more honest political analysis of the underlying challenges facing the UK, in or out of the Union.
This blog post is part of a new IPR Series – all related to the BREXIT debate and the EU Referendum. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in May 2016. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or to join our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs.
 Portes, J. (2016) ‘Immigration, free movement and the EU referendum’, National Institute Economic Review 236 p. 14-22