Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Should EU Migrants Fear Brexit?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 25th May, 2016

The American novelist Mark Twain was fond of saying that there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. And with both the Remain and Leave sides in Britain’s EU Referendum campaign sharing sometimes completely contradictory statistics in the run-up to the vote on 23 June, it’s no wonder people are confused.

How do EU citizens in the UK feel?

There are an estimated 2.2 million EU migrants who live and work in the UK, having taken advantage of the European Single Market’s freedom of movement of people, goods and services. How do they feel about the possibility of Britons voting to leave the EU?

Unsurprisingly, 87% of the 1,000 continental EU citizens living in the UK surveyed by totaljobs in May 2016 said they are concerned about Brexit. There is no guarantee that they could stay in Britain post-Brexit, though 75% of respondents said they would try to do so. That might mean they would have to apply for a work visa, which may not be guaranteed.

If they were pushed out of Britain after Brexit – perhaps passing thousands of expatriate Brits returning home from their lives in mainland Europe because of a reciprocal withdrawal of rights – many say they would go back to their home country. But slightly more would look for work in another EU member state, the survey uncovered. Wage differentials certainly make that worthwhile for people coming from low-wage economies.

Some British tabloids have claimed that EU migrants, especially from formerly communist states of central and eastern Europe such as Romania and Bulgaria, came to Britain essentially to take advantage of the country’s relatively generous, non-contributory benefits system, but the totaljobs survey findings do not support the idea of such a powerful ‘pull factor’.

Europeans-and-Brexit-2

Working in the UK

Fewer than half of respondents cited better benefits when asked how working in the UK had affected their career, whereas two thirds mentioned higher earnings. Notably, a majority of the European migrants surveyed were earning less than the average British salary of £26,000 a year. Career progression and a healthier work-life balance also figured prominently in their responses.

For a clear majority of respondents, coming to Britain was all about work: Better job opportunities and higher salaries than those available back home. By far the biggest group represented among the EU migrants in Britain are people aged between 25 and 44 – a prime stage of life for developing their careers.

Others cited educational opportunities, including the chance to improve their English, which is recognised as the number 1 language in the EU and in the wider world.

Some came to Britain for personal reasons, being married to or in a relationship with a Brit, or else joining family already living here. Yet others simply wanted to experience another culture, with many settling in London, which is currently enjoying a particularly vibrant period culturally and economically.

Employers in both the manufacturing and agricultural sectors in the UK often say they like to have workers from the continent because they have a good work ethic. In some cases, employers find it difficult to recruit suitable British workers to do the job.

Similarly, while some Brits argue that competition from EU migrants pushes down wages, a recent study by the London School of Economics maintains that is in fact not the case.

How many Europeans are in the UK?

EU migrants probably make up no more than 5% of the total labour force in Britain. The Poles are by far the largest single group of (non-Irish) EU migrants in the UK, and made up a fifth of the totaljobs survey respondents.

In 2004, when Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus joined the EU, Britain, unlike most other existing member states, did not impose transitional arrangements that would have stopped migrants from the accession states moving in for a number of years.

Inevitably Britain was something of a magnet, though not all those who came in the first wave stayed very long, particularly after the financial crisis of 2008. Incidentally, the government considers those who stay for less than a year to be ‘short term migrants’ and does not include them in the headline immigration statistics.

That largely explains why considerably more EU migrants were given National Insurance numbers than show up in the official immigration figures provided by the Home Office. Yet these statistics may only tell some of the story; although the British border force monitors people coming into the country, it does not check those leaving, so no one can be completely sure how many continental EU citizens are living here at any given moment.

Also notable, each year the EU migrants arriving in Britain are outnumbered by immigrants from other parts of the world, a higher proportion of whom are hoping to settle permanently.

Europeans-and-Brexit-1

Do EU citizens think it’s worth staying?

Well over half of the migrants polled said they were satisfied with the experience of working in Britain and that they felt more comfortable in the work culture of Britain than they did back home. Yet not all were comfortable in the current political climate as the EU Referendum approaches.

A third of respondents, notably those who had been in the UK for less than five years, said they would feel discriminated against if they were looking for a job now. They also worried about possible political developments in the country after a potential Brexit.

One option for some would be to protect themselves by applying for UK nationality. Half of the 1,000 survey respondents said they had indeed considered it and nearly 10% were in the process of doing so. Yet in contrast, a significant proportion of the total believed they would leave Britain within the next two years.

The British government says it called the Brexit referendum in response to public demand; the last such vote, to confirm Britain’s membership of the then-European Economic Community, occurred back in 1975.

The decision to hold this referendum has affected many migrants’ opinion of Britain negatively, especially among those aged 34 or younger. Perhaps they belong to a generation that takes the realities of the European single market for granted and are especially unhappy that freedom of movement might be curtailed.

Job security is the top concern, with younger migrants in particular fearing they will be kicked out of the country. Some also worry about a possible rise in xenophobia and possible discrimiation.

Other preoccupations are primarily financial. Currency fluctuations could mean that the pounds migrants earn by working in Britain would be worth less back home post-Brexit, while air fares – important for those who return to their home country regularly to visit family and friends – might rise substantially.

The information and speculation about the consequences of Brexit available are so inconsistent that it is hard for people to judge what the likely impact really would be. To make matters worse, according to the survey, 60% of the EU migrants questioned said the HR departments of the firms where they worked had not kept them informed about the potential work policy changes caused by Brexit.

That may appear shocking, until you realise that the HR people probably have no idea themselves.

More questions than answers

The truth is, no one knows exactly what the consequences of Britain leaving the EU would be, or indeed what sort of future relationship the UK would have with Europe. A Norwegian or Swiss model – both of which have been suggested – would mean that freedom of movement for EU workers would continue, whereas a Canadian model would see that right ended.

What does seem certain is that it would take several years of negotiation and legislative changes for Britain to disentangle itself from the EU, which means that a vote in favour of Brexit would not be the end of a process, but just its beginning.

[This article was first published by Totaljobs Group: http://www.totaljobs.com/insidejob/impact-brexit-europeans-working-uk/   ]

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