After returning yesterday evening from my trip out experiencing the atypical calm of a Hebridean autumn day, opening my Twitter account brought me denunciations of Theresa May’s reference to citizens from other EU countries coming to the UK as ‘queue jumping’. (And so, from calm to rage.) Quite rightly, too – it was offensive, shameful phrasing at which we can only wonder the reaction had this been said in Brussels, or Paris, or Madrid about British citizens taking advantage of free movement to make their lives in other countries – and no more ignorable for being just the latest in a long line of similar statements from Theresa May. I couldn’t pass up the chance to comment; and all the more so since the No. 10 spokesperson has apparently been trying to deny she said it: a pointlessly fallacious exercise (seemingly about semantics) when video exists of precisely what she said, and helpfully sub-titled, too. Either way, May was yesterday blowing a dog-whistle.
Firstly, the quote itself:
‘Once we’ve left the EU, we will be fully in control of who comes here. It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney, or software developers from Delhi.’
That is Brexit – right there. A complete misunderstanding of what EU rules and regulations allow us to do as a member; an obsession with queues and with others not following British (and British-influenced) queuing pecularities; and a hark back to the times when our closest links were not with those who with whom we have been building relationships over the last forty five years but with the countries of Empire.
The UK is not currently a part of the Schengen Agreement, so it still has borders at which it can routinely check the credentials of all who enter; and EU law means that those looking to stay beyond three months must be able to support themselves (and have comprehensive sickness insurance). The UK cannot enforce the three-month rule since it has no municipal procedure for registering citizens as do others in the EU (e.g. Belgium) and, while some might argue that this is a good thing from the perspective of the individual freedom of the citizen, it is, nevertheless, a public policy choice which prevents the UK from operating the rules of free movement as the EU actually envisages.
EU nationals working in this country to build their lives and this country are also skilled workers – some might even be engineers or software developers – and many of them were actually invited here by government departments to practise their skills and their professions. Several pieces of evidence – e.g. from the NHS – suggests that public services in particular may struggle in the light of the now-declining numbers of people coming into the UK for work from other EU countries. Furthermore, May’s reference has a presumption that freedom of movement for EU nationals is largely composed of people who have skill sets lower than those of engineers and software developers. Evidence on the skills mix is complicated but it is the case that ex-EU migrants are much more likely to be over-qualified for the jobs they are doing. And none of this is to ignore that care workers are required by the UK’s labour market – and increasingly so as our ‘domestic’ population ages.
The ending of free movement is of course a two-way street. In ending free movement for others to come here from the EU we are ending the free movement of UK nationals overseas, too. It is a truism to think that most ex-UK migrants have retired to Spain – the majority (some 80%) are of working age and, like most ex-EU nationals in this country, are likely actually to be in work. Regardless of the life situation of ex-UK migrants, they have all exercised entirely valid treaty rights and to castigate them, too, by implication, as queue jumpers is a disgracefully reactionary response.
The Migration Advisory Committee recently concluded that – to pick one of its several conclusions – ‘It remains the case that the majority of studies find no or little impact of immigration [i.e. from EEA countries] on the employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce’ (para 1.30, p. 29). It is impossible to argue that importing engineers from Sydney would improve or deteriorate this position – but the logical end-point of seeing ex-EU nationals as ‘queue jumpers’ in the future is that the engineer from Sydney is likely to be preferred to the one from Germany. After all, pushing ‘queue jumpers’ back down the queue is the correct procedural etiquette. May’s quote is, in this context, insidious.
And finally, there is, of course, no such ‘queue’ of migrants waiting for jobs to emerge before coming to the UK – nor any such ‘priority’ being somehow given as a result to EU nationals. What there is, is an entirely arbitrary (and entirely baseless) ‘target’ of getting net migration (from all places elsewhere) down to below 100,000 annually first introduced by David Cameron in 2011 and then enthusiastically adopted by Theresa May. This immigration cap – declared recently by Alan Manning, chair of the Migration Advisory Commission, to be a ‘political target’ rather than actual immigration policy – is what is driving the notion that an engineer from Sydney can’t get into the country whereas Pawel the apprentice plumber fresh out of vocational school has no problem in doing so. It is a choice – we can have both depending on the requirements of our labour market, but it suits the government’s agenda to pretend that we can’t.
And therein lies the main issue – this relentless banging on about the problems of EU immigration is how the government is lining up to sell its ‘deal’. Theresa May – economically a remainer but socially and culturally a leaver – has form on this: it is what she knows and we all know that this is the only place where she is comfortable. It is an extension of the ‘hostile environment’ that she instituted when at the Home Office. We can expect more – much more – of this in the coming days and weeks now that the ERG’s loaded rifle has been revealed to be firing no more than blanks: it is May’s only chance of bringing the parliamentary arithmetic into a position that supports her approach.
[Edit: the exchange between journalists and the No. 10 spokesperson has now been published. It is not a meeting of minds – and, as regards the substance? Perhaps we can put it down to Theresa May being, again, very clear. Very clear.]