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Debates

The UK and Europe

A new progressive framework for immigration

Harvey Redgrave / Jun 2018

Photo: Shutterstock


The social, economic and political effects of migration are inextricably interwoven into the fabric of Western Europe and its future. The flow of people across borders has been steadily growing since 2011, now hitting record levels according to the OECD.
 
While such immigration has brought significant economic and social benefits to receiving countries, the scale and speed of these flows have also raised some serious questions. There are social questions, relating to fears about the ability of some migrants to integrate within liberal democratic norms. There are economic questions about how certain economies have become so riven with skills shortages that they have become dependent on skills from abroad. There are distributional questions arising from evidence that low skilled workers may have seen their wages fall as a result of rising migration. And there are questions about the international architecture required to deal with the sorts of unprecedented movements of people that have been seen as a result of the refugee crisis.
 
There is barely a liberal democracy in existence today that has been untouched by political debate over immigration. It has uprooted governments, produced new parties and political alliances and divided communities and generations. Hostility to immigration was a major factor in the recent electoral successes of right-wing populist parties across Europe, including the National Front in France, which secured 34 per cent of the popular vote having made it through to the second-round run-off in the 2017 presidential election, the Alternative for Germany, which captured 13 per cent of the popular in the 2017 German parliamentary election, and the Northern League and the Five Start Movement in Italy, which between them won more than 50 per cent of the popular vote in Italy's 2018 general election and have now formed a government.
 
Why have policymakers, particularly those from established social democratic parties, struggled to articulate a credible policy agenda on immigration? Partly because they have felt conflicted; torn between a desire to open up opportunities for people from poor countries and the need to protect the poorest and most vulnerable groups in receiving countries; between the interests of individual migrants and the countries they leave behind; and between an understanding of migration's positive economic impacts and fears that it may make communities less cohesive. Confusion about how to weight these relative priorities has left policymakers divided and lacking a clear strategy for reform.
 
A second, related reason is that policymakers have often been frightened to engage with the issue, for fear of deepening divisions or pandering to irrational fears. This has had two damaging consequences. The first is that there has been a vacuum at the centre of politics, meaning that the most prominent voices have been extreme ones. The second is that the genuine tensions and trade-offs that lie at the heart of migration policy have all too often been glossed over or ignored by mainstream politics. Poor quality policies are a reflection of the increasingly polarised nature of political debate.
 
This has to change. It is no longer enough to complain about the false promises of populists: progressives have an obligation to set out a position on immigration that can secure public consent backed up by credible policies. 
 
What might that look like?
 
A new progressive framework for immigration would have three pillars. First, meaningful control. Over the last decade citizens have lost confidence in how governments have managed immigration, as a result of broken promises and a perceived lack of democratic accountability. An important objective is therefore to ensure that policymakers take steps to exercise meaningful control, keeping the pace and pattern of inflows manageable and tackling illegal migration, with proper accountability for how decisions are made
 
Second, maximising economic benefits. Too often immigration policy has been developed in isolation from broader economic policy. But they are inextricably linked. An important objective is therefore to ensure that the immigration system is aligned with a modern industrial strategy, plugging skills shortages in strategically important sectors of the economy. That means governments must be able to proactively attract the types of migrants that will most enhance economic productivity, rather than lumping all migration together into a single homogeneous bloc.
 
Third, solidarity. In a world of rapid population change, governments need to ensure immigration policy is designed to support, rather than undermine social integration at home, providing greater clarity on the expectations placed on new arrivals and sufficient pathways to citizenship. At the same time governments must avoid begger-my-neighbour approaches to global migratory flows, including the movement of refugees, working in partnership with other governments and meeting their humanitarian commitments at the international level.
 
An immigration policy anchored in those objectives would have radical implications for the future of policy: a system of digital identity verification to tackle illegal migration; the adoption of Canadian-style human capital points based systems, labour market reforms to reduce exploitation in the workplace; and a comprehensive national strategy for social integeation to drive greater social contact and encourage an inclusive (civic) citizenship. They are policies which would balance principle with pragmatism - providing the basis of a political strategy that can secure long lasting reform - reducing the scope for populists to use immigration as a tool to sow fear and division. That is surely an aspiration worth fighting for.

 

Harvey Redgrave

Harvey Redgrave

June 2018

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