While the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has no formal role in devising the bloc’s immigration policy, his words this week have turned much of the Brexit debate on its head. In an interview on French television, he said that France should suspend non-EU immigration for three to five years — with the exception of students and refugees — and that the EU needed to toughen external borders that have become a ‘sieve’.
Had those words come from the mouth of Nigel Farage, he would have been excoriated, not least by Barnier himself. How can any country (let alone a continent) manage in the modern world while shutting itself off to people from, say, India, Australia and America? But Britain found itself in a similar situation before Brexit, deporting American violinists because they did not earn enough — while accepting anyone from any EU member state without exception. This systematic discrimination against non-European immigrants was indefensible.
Brexit was not a drawbridge-up moment. It was a means of better managing globalisation, in a way that carries more democratic consent. Most of the world’s countries have control over their borders; when voters chose to retrieve this control by leaving the EU it was hardly an extreme act. Britain is now fast-tracking the immigration of highly skilled workers from around the world as part of a new, fairer, points-based immigration system that better fits our strong links with the Indian subcontinent and Australasia. David Cameron’s plan to limit net migration to 100,000 a year has thankfully been abandoned.
For obvious reasons, this new points-based system has not yet had a chance to be tested. It has been introduced into a world of travel bans and quarantine, in which it is hard enough to plan a holiday, let alone an international move. Britain’s new migration deal with India — which creates opportunities for skilled Indians to work in the UK while simultaneously bringing in powers to tackle illegal migration — was agreed in the same week that India had to be put on the ‘red list’, meaning almost all travel between the two countries is banned. But when the deal does come properly into effect, it will honour a promise made by the Prime Minister during the Brexit campaign and afterwards: to make the immigration system fairer, treating all foreign workers equally, wherever in the world they come from.
The hiatus in globalisation caused by the pandemic, however, could serve a useful purpose. Employers are complaining about labour shortages, which is a headache for them but good for wider society. It forces companies to ask whether they really should be looking abroad to recruit — or whether they could be doing more to train up people already here. To look to, say, Gdansk for an electrician may sometimes be the quickest and easiest option, but it might not always be the best. Take the trouble to recruit and train an apprentice locally and you might find you have a longer-term employee.
Mass immigration has brought Britain a great many benefits. A quarter of all British children have a foreign-born mother. We have established ourselves as the most successful melting pot in Europe. But this system has also risked weakening the link between economic growth and the training and education of young people.
When international travel returns to normal, hopefully we will have a fairer and more balanced labour market. And hopefully we will also have a migration system that encourages students to come to study in Britain (an export industry, because it is the direction of the flow of money that matters), but which also deals with illegal migrants more quickly and efficiently.
As for asylum seekers who cross the border from a safe country such as France, it is right that the government makes clear they will be deported. To do anything else risks encouraging the people-trafficking business, which has lured thousands to their deaths — mostly in the Mediterranean, but increasingly in the English Channel too.
When Boris Johnson was foreign secretary he coined the phrase ‘global Britain’, which was a strong symbol for our post-Brexit world. He now has the opportunity to welcome the kinds of immigrants that Barnier would seek to exclude from Europe, but to do so in a way that will create a more balanced economic recovery. If blue-collar workers see their wages rise as a result, we can expect plenty of complaints from employers. But it would bring a huge social benefit: manual labour has been too cheap for too long. This is why so many workers voted for Brexit — and for Johnson.
At a time when culture wars engulf so much of the world, the Prime Minister has a strong opportunity to set a new model of globalisation: going easy on low-paid, low-skilled migration but making Britain a gateway to the world’s talent. Immigration is a tricky subject to get right — to balance the needs of employers and employees, to be firm without being harsh, to be welcoming without inviting large numbers of migrants who will be unable to support themselves. But the UK’s new migration system, though not yet properly tested, is the right approach. Michel Barnier’s suggestion is very much not.