Nigel Farage’s statements calling for a ban on migrants coming to the UK is a setback for the debate on immigration - an issue that deserves thorough consideration, linking it to economic growth as well as social impact, says Sajjad Karim.
Sajjad Karim is a member of the European Parliament for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group (UK, Conservative Party).
Nigel Farage’s statements calling for a ban on migrants coming to the UK for the next five years has once again propelled the immigration debate to the forefront of the news cycle.
But while immigration is indeed a real issue that deserves serious debate, Mr Farage’s statements do little to advance that debate. His statements appear to be nothing more than a sensationalist populist attempt to win political points in the run up to the May European and local elections. And his belief that Enoch Powell was right in the basic principle of his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, the most controversial political speech in recent British political history, is an indicator of the extreme nature of his and UKIP’s rhetoric.
Such rhetoric relies heavily on misconceptions about EU immigration to Britain. We now know that the anticipated surge of migrants flooding the UK from new EU member states that warranted so much hysteria never actually materialized. And it’s unlikely this tidal wave of immigrants will arrive on our shores any time soon if the perceived hostility against migrants in Britain is anything to go by, as suggested in the FT and by the former Bulgarian Foreign Minister.
Moreover, the contempt directed against immigrants from poorer EU member states for leeching off the state and burdening our economy is also massively misplaced. According to a recent European Commission report, immigrants from EU countries to Britain paid more in tax than they received in benefits. Poles, for example, have actually made a net contribution to the UK in economic terms and have been readily absorbed into Britain’s labour market. The 2011 census counted 579,000 poles in the UK, down from the 1.2m Poles issued with National Insurance numbers, suggesting a substantial number had returned to Poland. And trade between the two countries has grown significantly since 2005, indicating that amongst those Poles that returned to Poland many used their UK business ties to help increase bilateral trade between the two nations.
Business leaders have also voiced their concerns about the negative effect hostile anti-immigration rhetoric could have on growth. In the words of CBI director-general John Cridland, “the business community would struggle to source the skills that they need without the benefits of the open European market”. It is a sentiment shared by the chief economist at the Institute of Directors and the head of immigration policy at business lobby London First.
It appears Nigel Farage doesn’t necessarily disagree with them. Mr Farage has stated that economic growth is a price worth paying in return for communities feeling more united and the unemployed getting more jobs. But failing to address a skills shortage that presently immigrant labour is required to fill won’t generate growth, the very thing needed for employment rates to pick up.
And by pitting the social impact of migration against its economic benefit is to presume both are mutually exclusive when they are not. The implication that EU immigrants have undermined strong united communities is completely unfounded. The example of the Polish community, who have integrated well here in the UK, demonstrates this and undermines the basis for Mr Farage supporting Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech, namely that a large influx of foreign people into an area will inevitably create tension.
Instead of a blanket ban on immigration, smarter, more effective regulations must be employed to ensure net contributors continue arriving from overseas to strengthen Britain’s growth. Recent government changes to the welfare system to prevent new arrivals from claiming unemployment benefits in their first three months of arrival go some way towards achieving this result.
Like in so many other developed nations, immigrants should be welcome here in the UK as long as they, like the many that have come before them, continue to contribute to and improve Britain.
Finally, the immigration debate needs to stop being used for selfish political ends and as a scapegoat for economic difficulties or socio-political challenges that migrant communities have had little or no bearing on. This is a phenomenon that unfortunately is not restricted to just the UK. It is a trend that other EU countries are also experiencing, from the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, to Le Pen’s National Front in France, to the Progress Party in Norway and the Golden Dawn in Greece; all of them staunchly, sometimes aggressively oppose EU immigration.
And as with all the EU countries witnessing the emergence of right wing anti-immigration movements, the hysteria around immigration is being ratcheted up in the run-up to May’s European elections. Extreme voices that were traditionally fringe are making a desperate push to become more mainstream. Moderate voices must work to ensure they do not.
This opinion was first posted on British Influence.