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Migration made Brexit. Will it now change it's direction?

British American Business Council

Two weeks ago London business chiefs and politicians, among them London Mayor Sadiq Khan, sent a letter to Brexit Secretary David Davis calling on him to ensure that the UK remains open to European workers after it leaves the EU.

The letter comes after a new report by the Centre for London had warned about “considerable” risks to the capital; should the UK limit the freedom of movement across the UK-EU border?

Calls for the UK not to gamble its attraction to foreign workers and access to EU talent have been numerous in the past few weeks; not only for London, which has by far the highest number of EU citizens working and living there.

Yet, the fear of further migration was also one of the, if not the key argument that successfully drove the ‘Leave’ campaign to success, making it a crucial part of the negotiations between the UK and the EU.

It is true that net migration to the UK has been considerably high compared with other major EU economies. Most EU migrants arrived within the last 15 years, changing the proportion of EU migrants living in the UK from one to four in hundred UK citizens in a short time.

The UK Government has been trying to find ways to cut migration, mainly through limiting non-EU migration; and ambition famously reflected in the 2010 promise of former Prime Minister David Cameron to bring down migration to the tens of thousands.

The result was limited, also because UK-based business fought restrictions hard.

Part of the UK’s migration ‘problem’ is a result of its own success. With foreign investment pouring into the country seen as the gateway to Europe and unemployment low; the UK economy relies on EU workers to fill gaps in the job market.

It was partly because of that that former Prime Minister Tony Blair allowed citizens from the eight new Eastern European states to come to the UK after their access to the EU in 2004.

Yet, while the benefits of migration to businesses and the overall economy are obvious; the rapid increase in migration to the UK since the early 2000s also brought enormous challenges to society.

A report of a Middlesex University in 2008 for example noted that in some British schools the number of Polish children rose from zero to dozens in only a few years, creating enormous challenges for schools, teacher and the community around them to integrate them properly.

In the eyes of many Brexiteers, taking back control of the borders has become the measurement of whether the UK’s departure from the EU is a success.

But right now, one wonder whether it is the issue of migration that could make it harder to reach a Brexit deal: The first reason for that assessment is the fact that leading UK Government officials seems to have become more divided over the question as to whether the UK should have access and for how long to the Single Market and Customs Union, partially due to pressure from business groups that fear its damaging economic consequences.

The EU, however, has been clear that access to the Single Market and Customs Union are tied to Freedom of Movement.

This leaves the UK in a difficult negotiation position in which one might pay a high economic price for its pledge to take control of the borders or give in on a point that sits at the heart of Brexit.

The second reason is timing. Negotiation partners are already more behind schedule than they hoped to on the question of the future legal status of millions of EU nationals living and working in the UK and British citizens working and living in other EU countries after the EU rejected the UK prime Minister’s offer to grant EU nationals a “settled status” in the UK.

The question of future migration has not even fully been touched yet. A report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) that could shed light on the impact and relevance of international migration in the UK has yet to be commissioned. If commissioned, the results are unlikely to be published before mid-2018; only a few months before the official ‘Exit’ date in March 2019.

They may also confirm that migration is an integral part of the UK economy’s success.

Meanwhile, UK net migration numbers have sharply dropped by almost 25% since the 2016 referendum.

EU citizens account for most of the change. Hospitals, academic institutions and businesses already report that they start to struggle finding staff; and indication of the lasting impact cutting migration could have should the trend continue over the next 12 months.

With that the UK may find itself in a place a year from now where it realizes that it needs the very people it hoped to keep out with Brexit will it avoid an economic damage.

The issue of migration led to Brexit. It may also change its course of direction.