The UK’s Conservative Party will release its election manifesto tomorrow. Naturally, key points have already been leaked to the press. And the message is clear. There will be no compromise on the ‘red lines’ set out in Theresa May’s speech at Lancaster House on January 17th, 2017. Free movement of people will end; the UK will leave the single market and the customs union; and it will withdraw completely from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Those who thought that a convincing Conservative victory in the forthcoming election would mean a softer Brexit were deluded. If the Conservatives win, as is widely predicted, Brexit will mean Hard Brexit.
The heart of the matter is immigration control. Many British people, particularly supporters of the nationalist UK Independence Party, believe immigration is much too high. The previous government had a net migration (immigrants minus emigrants) target of 100,000 per annum, but meeting this target had proved impossible in practice: the latest official figures show that net migration in 2016 was 273,000. Interestingly, nearly half of all immigrants come from outside the EU. Clearly, if she is to gain the broad support that she wants, Mrs. May must craft an immigration policy that significantly reduces immigration not only from the EU, but from other countries too.
According to ITV’s Robert Peston, the manifesto will confirm that immigration is much too high. It will aim to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands’. As this figure will include students, there will have to be a very large fall in the numbers coming to the UK to work, if the UK’s important higher education sector is not to suffer serious damage. Bringing down these numbers is therefore expected to be the focus of the manifesto commitments.
The manifesto will propose tighter restrictions on immigration from outside the EU, to be implemented soon after the new government is elected. These restrictions will include increasing the annual ‘skills charge’, a tax levied on companies who bring skilled migrants into the UK, to £2,000 per migrant – double the current amount. Migrants will also face higher fees to access the UK’s National Health Service. And according to the BBC, the manifesto promises to ‘bear down’ on immigration ‘across all visa routes’, which suggests that obtaining visas might be made more difficult.
Importantly for Brexit negotiations, the manifesto will also announce ‘unambiguously’ that immigration from EU countries will be controlled from the moment Britain leaves the EU, currently scheduled for March 29th, 2019. Exactly what form that control will take is not yet clear, but it seems likely to be equivalent to restrictions on immigration from non-EU countries. That implies visas or work permits, charges for healthcare, and tax penalties for companies bringing in workers from the EU.
The ‘skills charge’ applies to companies bringing in skilled workers from overseas, and the money raised is intended to be used for improving the skills of British people. At present it is not clear what the situation regarding unskilled migration will be. UKIP’s stated policy is to end unskilled migration completely, and as Robert Peston says, May is clearly aiming at UKIP voters. So, in future unskilled migrants could have a hard time getting into the UK. Recent comments from the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, suggest that the Government is not minded to make concessions to help sectors such as agriculture and hospitality that rely on unskilled immigrant labour. They are supposed to ‘hire British‘ – though as unemployment in the UK is now at its lowest since 1975, it is hard to see how companies will find thousands of British unskilled workers to replace the immigrants who will soon be denied entry. Perhaps they will have to pay higher wages and provide better working conditions.
The EU, too, has made its ‘red lines’ very clear. Free movement of people is one of the ‘four freedoms’ of the European Union, and is not negotiable. Of course, if Mrs. May were feeling bloody-minded, she could point out that the EU doesn’t hesitate to suspend its “freedoms” when it suits. It happily suspended the Schengen agreement at the height of the refugee crisis. And it has twice allowed Eurozone members to impose capital controls; these also impede the free movement of people, since it is difficult to move from one country to another if you can’t take any money with you. Clearly, therefore, freedom of movement is not set in stone.
The UK’s Conservative Party Opts For Hard Brexit – Forbes