Pledge to rejoin EU needs to be matched by EU Impact Fund
By Nick Hopkinson in Lib Dem Voice
Tim Farron has rightly pledged we should campaign to take Britain back into the EU in the next general election. Should the election take place earlier than expected, we may still be an EU member, and should propose to withdraw from the Article 50 process.
In either case, it would not be politically credible to advocate reinstating or maintaining EU membership without proposing major domestic initiatives on immigration. The overall Remain campaign failed to a considerable degree because it did not factor in concerns, whether real or imagined, about immigration. The voices of the, largely, English hinterland must be heeded. Any Lib Dem call to rejoin or remain in the EU should therefore be accompanied by proposals to alleviate the perceived and in many cases, real, impact of immigration.
Pressures on housing, education, health and other social services can only be attributed in part to immigration. Ageing, internal migration, austerity and underinvestment together are often the more salient causes. Free movement from the EU accounts for just under half of all net migration and is the price of access to the Single EU market. Ending free movement within the EU (including from Ireland and returning UK nationals) will therefore not substantially reduce immigration, a point of mine which Dan Hannan MEP agreed during a referendum debate. If the diagnosis of our problems is wrong, then the prescription of leaving the EU will not cure them.
Even though immigration benefits our economy in aggregate, measures to curb its differential impact are needed. High immigrant concentrations in parts of the country (e.g. Boston, Castle Point and Thurrock) or areas and sectors which have been affected by EU policies (e.g. fishing, construction) can place disproportionately high pressure on local employment, social services, and housing. Rather than being ignored by politicians, most affected areas should qualify for increased funding for local services. They too should share in the benefits of EU membership - that they haven't means none of us now will.
A fund modelled on the £50 million Migrants Impact Fund, scrapped in 2010, should be reinstated and funding should be substantially increased. I therefore propose that if we advocate rejoining or remaining in the EU, this should be accompanied by apledge to create an EU Impact Fund to match our net EU Budget contribution of £8.5 billion, effectively adding a penny or two in the pound of higher rate tax payers. Additional funds from the EU Social Fund might be available. More investment in education, health, and housing could stimulate 'left behind' local economies, reduce unemployment and help reduce fears about immigrants taking away 'British jobs'. Those who benefit from the EU should demonstrate solidarity with those who perceive they don't.
Other measures which might be undertaken include reviving proposals for making contributions mandatory in order to qualify for benefits as in some other EU member states. A law could be introduced to prevent the advertising of UK-based jobs only outside the UK. Border management could be made more effective by counting people both entering and leaving the UK. Lastly, the 125,000 foreign students who generate £2.27 billion per annum for the UK economy and 19,000 jobs, should be taken out of net immigration statistics as most are temporary residents. It is only through implementing such policy measures at Westminster that we can start to delink the immigration 'threat' from the vastly greater macro-economic benefits of EU membership which we are now set to lose.
* Nick Hopkinson is chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) (website: http://ldeg.org/en/ ) and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.