Can the UK exercise some degree of control on EU immigration while still having access to the European Single Market? This is maybe the most important question surrounding Brexit and the negotiations with the EU.
We have argued that the British people did not vote to restrict immigration. Rather they voted against the perceived effects of immigration – effects that Brexit might worsen rather than improve. Nobody has yet tried to gain political traction by trying to make these arguments.
Maybe that’s not possible. For a government firmly gripped by the crotch by its Eurosceptic backbenchers and led by a Prime Minister seemingly still smarting from her immigration failures at the Home Office, making such arguments is inconceivable.
So a new (actually not quite so new) tack is emerging. That Britain could do a deal with the EU under which it maintains access to the Single Market while exercising some control on freedom of movement – preferably in the context of broader freedom of movement reform across the EU. We have made these arguments ourselves. But the latest paper comes from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
It’s a well put together paper. It is optimistic about the potential for such a deal. But it probably underestimates the hurdles. One issue that always bedevils policy-making is political context. Sensible reform is only possible when the political context allows it. Timing is therefore crucial.
The time for reform of free movement rules was, funnily enough, during Blair’s term of office. It could easily have been incorporated into the discussion on enlargement to the East and might then have received a favourable hearing. But that’s all water under the bridge and not helpful in the current discussion.
The political context today is Brexit. Anything seen in European capitals as favouring the UK or somehow dancing to a UK-driven agenda will immediately become toxic and undeliverable. It is true that, as the Blair paper points out, concern on free movement is increasing in a number of countries.
But, rather than pushing such an agenda forward, the reality is that the Brexit process is much more likely to push it into the background. Other concerned countries will likely be persuaded to be patient rather than raise the issue during fraught Brexit negotiations.
So the question that Britain faces is different to that put forward in the Blair paper. The key issue is not how Brexit negotiations could strike a deal on free movement – that is highly unlikely. Rather the question is whether the political context in Europe can evolve to allow such a discussion to take place – and to take place in a way that it is not seen to be related to Brexit and Britain is not seen to play any part in the discussion. Any British voice will probably such discussion dead before it is born.
As for Britain, the best bet is to accept freedom of movement in its current form for the transitional period that everyone now agrees is essential. The immigration discussion can be postponed until some of the current heat has gone out of the Brexit debate and the political context is more favourable.
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