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Shock: Tony Blair is right about immigration. (Well, sort of).

DENIAL isn’t just a river in Egypt, or so the saying goes, and it’s still running through Tory, and  thinking about Europe. Now that “hard Brexit” is a busted flush there are all manner of alternatives being talked about: like the Tory leader, Ruth Davidson’s “open Brexit”, John McDonnell’s “jobs Brexit” and the old favourite “soft Brexit”. All these are denials of the reality that there is no alternative to single market Brexit.

Now, far be it for me to sing the praises of Tony Blair, but his recent intervention had a point to it. It has always been the case that Britain could, under EU rules, register migrants to Britain and deport them after three months if they have no job or lack the means to support themselves of their families.  The fact that Britain did not choose to take these actions (largely because the vast majority of EU migrants came here to work) is hardly the fault of Brussels.  Benefits tourism was always a myth, but if it had been real then the UK state had the means to deal with it.

Tony Blair is also right that the EU is much more open to immigration control since the refugee crisis caused borders to go up across the Schengen zone.   But the EU is hardly going to give Britain a lesson on its own immigration policy.   Their interest now is defending the single market, and freedom of movement, against the biggest threat faced by the EU since the sovereign debt crisis.

Think of it from the point of view of Brussels. Even before the General Election, the European Union had firmed up its line considerably. Michel Barnier, the EU lead negotiator, said that there could be no deal on the subsequent talks on access to the single market that did not involve acceptance of the “four freedoms” – free movement of capital, labour, goods and services. This is an existential question for the EU, because if it concedes on any of these, then the entire EU is likely to fall apart.

That was the hard-line position before the election, when Theresa May had a working majority in the Commons; does anyone seriously think the EU will have softened its line now she has been humiliated and her majority, and her mandate, obliterated? There is no way it will accept “full and frictionless” access to the single market without the UK subscribing to its rules and paying its dues. Why should it?

However, there might well be some flexibility from the EU on immigration precisely because its leaders realise they’re dealing with a much-weakened Prime Minister. They can see that the hard-line Brexiters have been routed and that their idea that “no deal is better than a bad deal” has been exposed as crazy. Reverting to World Trade Organisation rules, with up to 35 per cent tariffs on British exports is a ruinous proposition, and is now safely binned.

There is every possibility that Britain can be brought back into the European fold by giving it the kind of associate status that is enjoyed – if that’s the right word – by Norway. This is called the European Economic Area (EEA) and it is essentially the same as the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) that Britain set up in 1960 as an alternative to the then European Economic Community (EEC).

EEA status essentially means that Britain would remain in the European single market but is not subject to the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy or other aspects of EU Court of Justice jurisdiction. It’s not perfect. It still means paying membership dues without having any representation on EU decision-making bodies. But it keeps Britain in the biggest and richest free trading block the world has ever seen. And it is Brexit.

To join the EEA, Britain has to accept free movement. However, it’s not as free as it sounds, or is presented in anti-European newspapers. Switzerland, which is in EFTA, effectively has immigration quotas following a referendum there. Other EU countries have responded to the refugee crisis by imposing controls that would be deemed draconian had they been proposed here. Denmark even resorted to seizing valuables from refugees at the border.

Attitudes to free movement have changed in Europe and there is undoubtedly a greater willingness to accept that Britain had problems with mass EU migration after enlargement of the EU in 2004. However, this was largely self-inflicted. It was the UK which argued for rapid EU enlargement and decided not to impose a temporary break on migration from countries like Bulgaria and Romania. And of course, the UK chose not to keep track of migration – to such an extent that the Home Office overestimated the numbers of EU students remaining in the UK after graduation by over 100,000.

Whatever, I think what we’ve learned from the General Election is that immigration is not the big issue any more, if it ever was. Ukip is toast. Forty per cent of the UK electorate voted for a Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who repeatedly and vocally defended immigrants and celebrated their contribution to Britain. There’s also a dawning realisation that less migration from the EU means more from countries like India and Pakistan. The economy needs free movement from somewhere: even the Tories agree on that. And the best way to get it is through the regulated single market, and by applying the immigration rules that the UK state already has at its disposal.  EEA here we come.



About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.


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