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Brexit: The story so far

25 May 2016

With the upcoming EU referendum drawing nearer, it seems timely to review the questions and topics driving the debate. The differing perspectives have not always been straightforward to follow and both sides have been accused of bias, misrepresentation and hyperbole at various points.

Freedom of movement has been one of the pressure points in the debate. However, this was not the case during the first European referendum, which took place in 1975. The reason it has featured so heavily this time around has mainly been due to the significant increase in the number of people entering the UK.

There was no high-volume migration to the UK from other EU countries - apart from Ireland - until 2004, when Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the EU. Recent figures show that there are now over three million EU citizens residing in the UK. Since the beginning of the Eurozone crisis in 2009, the UK has also seen higher numbers of migrants from Portugal, Spain and Greece.

The UK does have the power to restrict migration from non-EU countries, but European treaties and European law mean it is required to accept migrants from other member states. This has fuelled Brexit supporters’ claim that the UK needs to leave the EU to regain control of its borders.

The main reasons cited for such high migration are economic need, with the UK offering comparatively high wages for menial work compared to other member states, especially those in eastern Europe. A desire for adventure or to improve English language skills is often the reason people migrate to the UK from more affluent countries, such as France and Germany.

The reason the UK has received more migrants from EU countries in eastern Europe than other EU countries is due to the terms the UK agreed to in 2004; when Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the EU, other member states put in place ‘transitional periods’, meaning migration was restricted.

The Blair government decided not imposing similar restrictions on emigration to the UK would ultimately be advantageous to the economy, projecting that there would be a net arrival of 13,000 people a year; it ended up being around 50,000 people a year.

At the heart of the Brexit debate is the argument over who benefits and who loses out from EU membership. High-profile economists have argued EU migrants have generated a net gain for the UK, improving both economic growth and tax yield. However, leave campaigners argue that high levels of immigration have put pressure on public services and driven down wages.

The validity of these opposing claims is hard to verify; recent surveys suggest there has been no clear effect on wages in the areas of the UK where the largest number of EU migrants are resident. Other surveys state that wages for lower-skilled workers have been marginally diminished.

The debate is a complex one, and both sides will continue to argue their rationale for remaining in or leaving the EU until the vote takes place on June 23 2016.




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