We should make a preferential immigration offer to the EU which caps low-skilled migration

We should make a preferential immigration offer to the EU which caps low-skilled migration

Sometimes you sit down in a restaurant, starving hungry, but there’s nothing on offer that sounds very appetising. And when it comes to Brexit, the fixed menu can seem very narrow indeed. Most of us would like a good trade deal with Europe for British businesses – but that always comes served with a liberal helping of free movement, which isn’t to everyone’s taste. And it can often feel that the only alternative is thin gruel: the hardest, coldest Brexit of all. That’s not much of a choice – but could we order off the menu?

We think you can, if you have a clear idea of what you’d like to eat – and if you’re not rude to the waiter. This week British Future has set out a proposal for a new ‘preferential’ system of immigration that could, we believe, give the British public the control over low-skilled immigration it wants, while also making a positive, preferential offer to the EU that could form part of a strong trade deal that works in both UK and EU interests.

If we can’t reach a deal between Britain and the EU by the time the Article 50 clock runs out in 2019, it will be a failure for both sides. The logical outcome for immigration in that scenario is that we’d then put in place the same immigration rules for Europe as outside the EU – and trade between the EU and UK would be subject to WTO rules and tariffs. But we could make the EU a much more attractive offer than that.

A new system could still offer preferential treatment for our European neighbours. Above a certain skills level we would keep free movement, both for EU workers in the UK and Britons who would like to work in Europe. According to post-referendum polling by ICM, people don’t want fewer engineers, doctors or nurses – in fact 88% of people say they wouldn’t cut skilled migration at all.

What the public would like, however, is greater control over the scale and pace of low- and semi-skilled immigration, with six in ten saying they would rather numbers were reduced.

So while our economy does need some low-skilled migration too, to pick fruit and work in care homes for instance, we propose that quotas for low-skilled workers – based on what our economy needs and agreed annually by Parliament after consultation with business, the NHS and affected local communities – would bring low-skilled immigration back under UK control.

Importantly, the first opportunity to fill those quotas could be offered to our European neighbours as part of a new trade deal – so Britain heads to the Brexit negotiations with a constructive proposal that offers preferential treatment for both high-skilled and low-skilled workers from the EU. Britain would get control over the pace of migration, but it’s also an attractive offer to the EU and its workers – certainly more so than if we can’t reach a deal.

A new controlled migration policy, that keeps Britain open to the skills that we need and want, could also help build consensus here in the UK. While a minority on both sides of the EU debate are still fighting the referendum, there is enough common ground between supporters of different political parties and of both Leave and Remain to convene around a majority proposal.

A preferential system would give moderate Leave supporters the British control over low-skilled immigration that formed a cornerstone of their campaign. It also maintains the spirit of openness and close European co-operation that will appeal to many pragmatic Remainers. Research for the TUC found that most Remain voters, while more positive about immigration than supporters of Leave, still wanted changes to free movement – particularly more say over the pace of unskilled immigration – while continuing to offer a warm welcome to those migrants who do come to the UK.

Will the EU negotiators like the look of this deal? Some say they will stonewall any proposal that stops short of full free movement. If that’s the case, negotiations will be difficult: both parties could walk away empty-handed with a no-deal that hurts businesses on both sides. We can’t tell Europe what’s in their interests, but we can enter into those negotiations in good faith, offering an early and positive resolution of the question of the rights of the 3.2 million EU nationals already living in the UK, while putting an offer that could work, for both the UK and EU, on the table.

And if Europe says Non, we can always look elsewhere and try another restaurant. This model, offering preferential migration arrangements as part of a trade deal, could also form part of future negotiations with trading partners other than the EU. For a number of important trading partners, such as Australia, Brazil, Canada and China, the UK might well focus on opening up skilled migration opportunities as part of future trade negotiations.

But before we do that, let’s see what the Brussels chefs have to say. We all know that Europe has some of the best food around.