David Cameron has just been to an EU summit to say that the EU must accept the restriction of free movement of labour; it’s not going to happen. I was reluctant, during the referendum campaign, to engage in debates on the subject of immigration: every attempt to intervene on the other side only reinforced the idea that the EU referendum was really about ‘controlling our borders’. The debate was misconceived in three ways. First, the UK does ‘control its borders’. In an open society, however, people cross back and forward across borders all the time, and they are routinely checked. Routinely, of course, means not very thoroughly, but doing it thoroughly to everyone passing a border is unthinkable. Border controls can in theory contribute to immigration control – in theory – but, as the experience of the USA shows, this is neither practical nor effective. All it shows, not very reliably, is that some visitors overstay.
Second, what is done at the border is of very limited relevance to the control of immigration. An ‘immigrant’ is not just a visitor; it is someone who comes to settle, which implies living, working and participate in another society. While the UK controls visits, it does remarkably little about immigration as such, with a signal lack of intervention in employment in particular and policies for housing and urban planning that are substantially laissez-faire.
Third, restricting the flow of migration is not the same as controlling the numbers. Restrictions limit potential numbers, because it restricts the flow, but it does not actually bring them under control. There is no fixed quota or number that might be achieved (let alone a figure for ‘net migration’, which depends on other factors beyond the government’s control. ) The situation is made more complex because there are several different kinds of circumstances where people come to settle. The principal categories are economic migrants (workers and families), family reunion, asylum seekers and refugees, and students. (There were 437,000 overseas students in 2014/15, including 125,000 from other EU countries. Education is more than a service industry, but it counts as one of our major exports.)
There is a problem with migration, but it is not the problem that the UK government has been talking about. The problem is that once migration happens, as it does all the time, there needs to be some adjustment to it. Both the UK government, and the institutions of the EU, are in the grip of a market based ideology which thinks that ‘free movement’ of money, goods, services and people is the same thing as unfettered movement. Markets have to be structured, regulated and facilitated. Where they have negative effects, those need to be managed and compensated for. When the EU was set up, the main concern was the impact of trade and specialisation on employment, and the Social Funds were set up to deal with that. But now, the neo-liberals are in the ascendant, both in the UK and in the EU. When it comes to the movement of people, there is no mechanism for management, at the level of the EU, the national government or local government.
Jobs need to be in places where people can live. There have to be houses, schools, roads. That means either that jobs are directed to those places, or that places have to be built and developed to go where the jobs are. I prefer the first of those options, but that’s not crucial to this argument. The point is that there is no inconsistency between the free movement of people – a fundamental principle of the European Union – and planning to meet population change. On the contrary, free movement depends on such planning. If EU rules are obstructing free movement, because they prevent planning happening, they need to be changed. But I suspect that the problem rests, not in the rules as such, as the assumption that the principle of free movement renders everyone helpless.