The new report on free movement in the EU from IPPR argues that pro-migration groups have to triangulate their advocacy with the antagonistic moods that currently hold sway. But do they need to go quite so stridently in the direction of arguing that they dictate the need for a ‘new course’ reigning in on some EU migrant rights?
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Immigration is not currently very popular with the voting public in the UK and indeed the citizens of most of the countries of the developed industrial world. The evidence of countless opinion polls scream out this headline fact and it is incumbent on even the greatest enthusiast of the benefits that come from the cross border movement of people to acknowledge the fact.
“Europe, free movement and the UK: Charting a new course”
In its latest report on immigration policy, IPPR argues that the apparent strength of public opposition to immigration “has to be treated with respect”. Even more than this, it says that it is sufficient ground for proclaiming a “new course” with regard to one aspect of control policy; the free movement of people under the terms of the treaties of the European Union.
IPPR has taken on itself the task of thinking about the types of social democratic policies that might have a chance of becoming popular with a plurality of politically active citizens and this seems to require that we have to take the views they have on the world as they come and steer a course around with this uppermost in mind. It is an approach which largely discounts the possibility that mass public opinion might change rapidly over short periods of time; such shifts as might occur happen only at glacial pace. In the meantime, we just have to live with them.
This being the case the report tells us that a dissection of public opinion is needed in order to identify the things that people are asking for from their politicians and then see how much of this can be offered up within a decent social democratic framework. According to IPPR what they want is not much more than an assurance that immigration is not undermining the conditions of life which the settled population has secured for itself and that the public services that attend to welfare and well-being distribute their goods on principles that most people would recognise as being fair. In addition they want to know that the authorities are equipped with the power to act against people who fall into the category of being ‘bad’ and undesirable immigrants by deporting them from the country.
If this is the case, the report has a suite of policies to offer the general public, ranging from the Swedish-style contracts for agency workers, strengthening the work of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), a localised system registration of all residents, English language classes for all who need them, making sending states responsible for social security of their citizens for longer periods after they migrate, and EU funding to cover the cost of returning migrants whose attempts to establish themselves in another state has not worked out.
There is a lot that is very sensible in this list and an outfit like MRN, being concerned primarily with the rights of migrants, would want to pitch in with support for anything that improves the lot of workers on temporary and agency contracts, access to affordable language courses, and something that places a duty of local and regional authorities to collect better data on the economic and social profiles of their resident populations.
What does the public want?
But how much of what is being revealed about opposition to immigration in public opinion polls is really answered by a set of policies of this sort? The people who do the most through and rigorous job of interpreting their meaning tell us that they consistently underscore two basic facts, which are that, firstly, people quite simply don’t like immigrants very much irrespective of whether they can be fitted into the category of the good, contribution-positive sort which immigration control policy is supposed to privilege, or they really are ‘bad ‘uns’.
Yet, and this is the second finding that the psephologists proclaim from their research, it seems that the majority of people at least do not hold these feelings of dislike for immigrants very deeply. They are quick to tell us that they would rather not bother having to deal with the complexities that come from living cheek by jowl with foreigners, but the numbers who appear to really want to make a big issue out of it is actually rather small. Moan and groan they might; but in a very British way, the great majority will keep calm and carry on.
There are both opportunities and dangers in dealing with the issue of public opinion in the way IPPR suggests. The opportunities come from being able to set out the list of broadly progressive social measures that do stand a chance of allaying at least some of the fears and anxieties which immigration seems to raise for some people. But the danger is that the proposal will be interpreted as evidence that an important though minority strand of thinking on the issue, that of pro-immigration progressives, are conceding to at least some elements of the argument that the free movement of people is not working out as a social and economic policy and needs to be brought to an end.
The report itself goes to some length to explain that free movement is one of the most successful of the EU’s measures and will need to be preserved if Europe is to remain a prosperous region in the world. Is there really any need at this moment in time to concede any aspect of this positive case to political forces that are trying to catch and apparently rising tide of nationalistic and even xenophobic moods?
Perhaps we should not allow ourselves to make the mistake of thinking that public moods and attitudes change only slowly. Over time spans of a decade or two they in fact can show enormous scope for complete turnaround, with views on issues like the equality of women and the rights of gay people being overturned in the space of a generation.
Advocates for liberal approaches to immigration should not close themselves to the possibility that this might also prove to be the case in the issue that they care about. Somewhere out there, nurtured perhaps amongst a group of people now planning their post university careers and the places they will be taken to, is the view that immigration is a part of reality and, as the campaigners for gay rights grew adept at explaining to us, we should all just get used to it. It would be a shame if, just at the point when this view of the world might be winning some purchase, the centre left has funked the argument and has got round to thinking pessimism about migration is perfectly understandable, and that is the reality we had just better get used to.
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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
* Don Flynn, the MRN director, leads the ogranization’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.