If I told you there were as many Brits in the rest of Europe as there are Europeans in Britain, would you believe me? When it comes to the immigration debate, how we feel matters, as much as what the statistics show.
Swiss voters went to the polls yesterday in a national referendum on immigration. By a tiny margin, they accepted an initiative put forward by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party to reintroduce quotas on the numbers of all migrants, including EU migrants, allowed to work in Switzerland.
Although the details of these proposals are yet to be determined, they have put the Swiss government in a difficult position. While compelled by the referendum result to seek a renegotiation of Switzerland’s bilateral treaty with the EU on the freedom of movement, it may also threaten a series of other bilateral agreements governing access to the single market.
British voters are unlikely to be faced with a similar choice on the specific aspects of our relationship with Europe. David Cameron’s plan for a referendum in Britain would ask if the UK should remain a member of the EU or leave entirely. But yesterday’s vote does provide an insight into what could happen if the UK withdrew from the EU and then tried to negotiate favourable access to the single market without accepting the principle of free movement. Switzerland’s vote has been met with unease in Brussels and other European capitals.
It’s worth remembering that free movement across the EU is a reciprocal benefit. The number of European migrants living in the UK is almost exactly balanced by the 2.2 million Britons living elsewhere in the EU, according to official figures. And yet, the Swiss vote highlights how serious the question of free movement has become to voters across Europe, and indicates what can happen if public concerns are not taken seriously by politicians.
In the UK, the Government has sought to address the worries that people have about immigration by introducing a series of restrictions on the access that European migrants have to certain welfare benefits. But EU migrants are more likely to be paying taxes and less likely to be claiming benefits than Brits and other migrants, and the majority come to work or look for work rather than to live off welfare. So these restrictions are unlikely to significantly reduce the numbers coming to Britain and they do not get to the heart of what worries people about unpredictable migration flows; namely, the impact of large scale immigration and the pressures that can be placed on stretched public services and on housing.
Many of the Swiss people who voted in favour of implementing an immigration cap knew the economic benefits that free movement can bring, but their concerns were focused on the social pressures that immigration was having on their country. If the UK wants to retain public appetite for freedom of movement, and all the economic benefits that it brings, then we need to do much more to address the impacts on public services, and support the integration of new migrants in the UK, which the pro camp failed to do sufficiently in Switzerland.
Alex Glennie is a researcher at the think tank IPPR