A new word has entered the lexicon – Brexodus – to reflect the claim that Europeans are leaving in droves as they shun post-Brexit Britain.
But it is a funny sort of Brexodus which leaves the number of European nationals in Britain at an all-time high. While the quarterly immigration figures did show a significant reduction in the scale of EU immigration to the UK, and a rise in the number of Europeans departing, those figures also showed that twice as many Europeans came to the UK as departed from it, with an estimated 122,000 EU nationals leaving the UK while 249,000 arrived in the year to March 2017.
There have been significant changes to migration from eastern Europe. The post-2004 migration from Poland and the other seven accession states was the largest in modern British history. The number of Poles resident in the UK reached a million for the first time in the statistics released last week. Yet the net A8 inflow of just 7,000 in the year to March 2017 shows that east European migration to and from the UK is almost in balance. A8 immigration was falling well before the referendum – perhaps less noticed because post-crash migration from Spain and Italy kept the overall EU numbers up – but has dipped sharply since the referendum.
Yet the ONS found, perhaps rather counterintuitively, no statistically significant shift in the migration flows of EU15 migrants in the first year after the referendum. There was an inflow of 74,000 west European migrants to the UK over the past year.
The sharp contrast between the A8 and EU15 trends may illuminate what has happened. It would suggest that the sharp depreciation of sterling after the referendum has been the most important driver of migration changes. That will have been an especially important factor to those coming to work for a year or two with the primary intention of saving money to take home.
The existential message of the referendum – which might be thought likely to affect both the A8 and EU15 groups equally – may have been somewhat less important so far. However, the geographical distribution of EU15 and A8 migrants is somewhat different, with a larger proportion of A8 migrants working outside the cities and university towns, including in some of the Leave heartlands.
The net inflow of tens of thousands of Europeans to the UK will place post-referendum Britain still quite high up the league table of the EU27 when it comes to attracting Europeans. Net migration from within Europe and beyond has been much higher to Germany than the UK – but the UK will likely remain in the top quarter of EU member states. In the last comprehensive comparative overview, 11 member states including Spain, Ireland and most of the Eastern states had net emigration.
An obvious lesson is to beware confident predictions about migration flows. That lesson ought to have been well learnt from Labour’s failure to anticipate or prepare for the 2004 migration flows; from David Cameron and Theresa May’s belief after a couple of years in office that they were on course to hit their impossible net migration target. Yet those who regret the referendum result flip between Tony Blair’s claim that Brexit won’t affect immigration at all – making an implausibly precise calculation that Brexit will only reduce immigration by 12 percent - and the Brexodus claim that almost everybody is packing their bags. That there has not been a dramatic shift in EU15 migration does not mean that there might not be bigger shifts over the next couple of years.
But headlines in the liberal press reporting that 50 percent of people intend to leave have a similar methodology to those in mid-market Eurosceptic papers suggesting that 50 percent of Bulgarians were about to arrive in 2014. Both play to the perceptions of their respective readerships, but neither are an accurate barometer of future choices. Indeed, the survey found the UK ranks third behind Germany and Sweden as a potential destination for future migrants from the EU.
While most Europeans do want to stay, there is considerable anxiety and uncertainty among Europeans already in Britain. It should not have taken the government a year to set out its plans to guarantee their status – and it is essential that the UK and EU rapidly come to an agreement on this issue.
Home Office administrative errors have added to the anxiety, and created considerable reputational damage to the UK. Letters sent to individuals telling them to leave are illegal and at odds with government policy. Home Secretary Amber Rudd needs to ensure that ministers and senior officials get a grip on preventing this recurring error being repeated again. Much better internal checks and resolution procedures will be needed before a new system deals with millions of applications at scale.
The government has been encouraging Europeans to do nothing yet. There has been a sharp spike of 80 percent in British citizenship applications, though the applications made last year are a small proportion of those to come, not least because the system requires an application for permanent residence after five years, and then a further application for citizenship a year later.
Since Brexit is a reset moment for immigration policy in Britain, the debate could usefully focus more on the immigration system we want to design than on the precise level of immigration we expect that to deliver. Nobody in government, politics or business has a crystal ball which reveals the condition of the British and European economies, the value of the pound against the zloty, the content of the negotiations over the transitional period and future UK-EU relationships, or a myriad of other factors which will impact on both inflows and outflows during this period of flux. Immigration levels may change considerably before any post-Brexit policy choices are made.
The future of immigration to Britain will depend not only on the policy choices that the British government makes but also on Europeans wanting to continue to choose Britain as a place to work and live. The lack of a rapid Brexodus suggests that has not been pre-determined by the referendum result – but will depend on the choices that we all make next.
Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future