Could we ‘solve’ the immigration issue by making it easier to migrate, not harder?

Migration.  A bit of a hot topic at the moment.  And there’s no type of migration that’s a hotter topic at the moment than migration from the EU.  Some people in the UK are seriously fed up with a policy they believe allows people from outside their country to take their jobs, put strain on public services, and get first dibs on the dwindling housing stock.  Indeed, frustration over migration has become one of the main sentiments that ‘leave’ campaigners hope to exploit as they make their case in the EU referendum.

The reason migration is such a prominent issue is because people have quite strongly-held views about it.  Some see migration as a great economic and cultural benefit to the country; others see it as a destructive force which divides communities and cripples services.  They are two diametrically-opposed world views, which could be extremely hard to reconcile.

With such differing views of one issue, it should come as no surprise that these world views are partly a result of far removed lives and experiences.  Without wanting to stereotype too much, successive studies have shown that someone who is pro-migration is likely to be younger, wealthier and university educated — someone who not only has the necessary skills to not feel too worried about the prospect of an immigrant taking their job, but also someone who has directly felt the benefits of migration, either through interacting with people from all over the world at university or at work, or indeed by migrating to other parts of the world themselves. Those who see migration as a problem are likely to be poorer and less well-educated — they tend to be financially insecure, rarely have interaction with someone from outside of their immediate community, and have rarely been abroad. To them, all they really need is right where they are, if only everything they depend on wasn’t being taken over by people from outside their community.

From this evidence, we can make one hypothesis — that as a particular person feels the benefits of migration, their position on the issue becomes more positive.  And from this hypothesis, we’re going to ask a bold question — could we go some way to ‘solving’ the immigration issue by making it easier to migrate, rather than harder?

What we’re talking about is making it easier for those people who would normally have no inclination or ability to migrate (those on low income with no language skills and low levels of education — i.e. the very same people who dislike the concept of immigration) to migrate.  This would do two things: it would for the first time create a truly mobile labour market, in which someone unhappy with the situation in their current location has the means to relocate; and it would expose more people to the benefits of migration, therefore (if our hypothesis is correct) making their views of migration more positive.

How would we go about doing this? Well the first thing is to make sure that adequate standards are set for social benefits across the EU.  For example, at the moment the legal minimum wage varies wildly from country to country. Likewise, some countries have higher levels of in-work benefits (like the UK’s tax credits) than other countries.  The differences in these higher wage levels and in-work benefits may be one reason why it is more appealing for a Bulgarian worker to travel to the UK than vice versa.  To level the playing field, the EU could introduce a minimum minimum wage (yes, you read that correctly — a minimum level at which a European country should be allowed to set their minimum wage) and ensure a collectively agreed set of in-work benefits for all citizens of the European Union.  This could make it easier for people on low incomes to migrate, and could breed less resentment towards migrants from local communities, as they would be afforded the same rights if they migrated.

A couple of other initiatives would make it easier for those on low incomes to migrate.  Ensuring that all qualifications are accepted in any European country is key — if we receive a diploma in the UK, it should be as useful to us for getting a job in Berlin or Brussels as it would be in Birmingham or Bristol.  Equally, people need to know that a job in Berlin, Brussels or Bucharest would pay them the same as a similar job in Britain would — there is little point in migrating if you’re going to work for half the pay you would expect in your home country. Putting in a few regulations to ensure that people can expect equal pay for equal work would make people feel free to work wherever they choose.  It would also ensure that migrant workers aren’t undercutting locals’ pay.


These measures would all make it easier for people to migrate within the EU.  There are a couple of more proactive programmes that would improve things in this regard, too.  For example, jobs across the EU need to be better advertised — we’re willing to bet that the EU’s current online job portal, EURES, is hardly known by anyone.  EURES needs to be more accessible to those on lower incomes, and much better advertised generally — people won’t migrate if they don’t know what opportunities are out there in other EU countries.

Perhaps the most powerful scheme that could change perceptions on EU migration is an Erasmus-style programme for apprenticeships.  The very successful scheme allows a university student to swap places for a year with another student in a different European country.  Erasmus fosters links between people of different European nationalities and backgrounds, and allows them to get a good sense of the experiences of other European people and what migration involves.

A similar scheme for apprenticeships for people between 16 and 22 would provide these same opportunities and experiences for those who didn’t choose the academic route, giving those at the very start of their career a chance to have the experiences those at university had. And, if our hypothesis is correct, this would make such people look more favourably upon the concept of immigration — they will have a first-hand account of the benefits, which they could take with them through the rest of their life. They may choose to migrate again after their apprenticeship scheme has come to an end; at the very least, it will have broken the cycle of generations of people who feel alienation and resentment towards the EU and towards immigration.

Of course, such ambitious schemes with lofty aims would come up against opposition.  To those already critical of the EU, the policies highlighted above would demonstrate the EU trying to overreach in order to fix a problem they believe it caused.  The execution of the programmes would be crucial — if they fall short, like the EURES system already has, then it will have been for nothing.  But if they can create a truly mobile labour market, where everyone in the EU feels they can move to a different country at the drop of a hat, then we could start to see a change in both life satisfaction and how people view immigration.

It sounds topsy-turvy, but there is definitely a chance that the immigration ‘problem’ in the EU could be solved by making it easier for people to migrate, rather than harder.  Exposing people who are resentful of the EU to the benefits of migration would reap political rewards, while allowing everyone to share in a truly mobile labour market.  It could be a long time before we see any change, but we’re willing to bet it’d be worth the wait.

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Jon Holiday

Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.

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