By Thomas K. Grose, LONDON — BRITISH PRIME Minister Theresa May is determined to cement a withdrawal agreement with the European Union that will eventually allow the United Kingdom to drastically reduce immigration from the EU, arguing that’s what most voters wanted when they narrowly approved in 2016 the country’s looming exit from Europe.
But although the British exit from the EU – the process called “Brexit” – is still weeks away, the flow of EU workers into Britain has already slowed to a trickle. Net migration from the EU into the country slumped to 57,000 in the year ending last September, according to recently released figures from the Office of National Statistics, or ONS.
The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29, and uncertainty surrounds whether May’s plan will pass muster with Parliament, which may vote on it again on Tuesday.
Many British industries heavily reliant on European labor and already fearing a post-Brexit evaporation of their labor pools say the slowdown in migration is already starting to hurt. “Are we feeling a pinch? Yes, we are,” says Tim Thomas, a director at Make UK, a manufacturers’ trade group.
The reduction in EU migration is occurring at a time when British attitudes toward immigration are rapidly softening. A new poll by Ipsos-Mori — echoing other recent surveys — finds that 48 percent of respondents say the U.K. benefits from immigration. Only 25 percent view immigration negatively. At the time of the June 23, 2016 referendum, 43 percent had a negative view versus 40 percent who called immigration a positive thing.
Overall, the ONS estimates that net migration into Britain — including non-EU migrants — totaled 283,000 last year, with 627,000 people moving into the country, while 345,000 left. Net EU migration is down 70 percent from its 2016 total of 110,000. Fewer citizens from the eight central and eastern EU states – who mainly come to Britain to fill low-skill, low-wage jobs – entered the U.K. last year than left it. Nearly 40,000 arrived, but 55,000 left.
The ONS also says the Labor Force Survey for the last quarter of 2018 estimates there were 2.27 million EU nationals working in Britain, 61,000 fewer than the same period in 2017.
The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford says EU workers are clearly finding Britain a less attractive option because of political uncertainty over Brexit. Additionally, the weakened British pound and expanding economies in their home countries have made U.K. jobs and wages less attractive to EU workers.
Officials in industries ranging from retail to hospitality to agriculture to manufacturing say they need the influx of EU workers to do jobs that are hard to fill with domestic labor – especially when the national jobless rate is at 4 percent, which economists consider full employment.
But if May’s Brexit plan passes, it would pull the U.K. out of Europe’s single market and customs union so it would no longer have to abide by the EU’s requirement for the free movement of people. It could then drastically curtail migration from Europe.
Post-Brexit, May’s government has proposed allowing work visas to most EU nationals for only up to two years. To stay longer, workers would have to earn at least £30,000 ($39,000) a year – a salary threshold that many business groups say is ridiculously high. “That would severely restrict our ability to recruit people from outside the U.K.,” Thomas says.
The recent polling indicating that Britons are more accepting of immigration means that May’s Brexit deal is “arguably” now out of sync with public opinion, says Robert Ford, a political scientist at the University of Manchester.
To be sure, he says, it’s possible that some respondents have softened their view toward immigration because they now think Brexit has already given Britain more control over its borders. That argument doesn’t jibe with the shift in public opinion that began in earnest in 2011 – five years before the referendum — when 65 percent viewed immigration negatively versus just 19 percent who saw it positively.
Other recent polls, Ford says, show that a majority of Britons now say staying in the single market is more important than curbing immigration.
It’s possible, he says, that the public is doing a better job now than three years ago of recognizing the economic costs of Brexit, and that’s helping to change attitudes toward immigration.
Polls indicate a so-called soft Brexit deal that allows the U.K. to remain in the single market and customs union after leaving the EU is the outcome that now resonates with most of the public, Ford says.
But are those polls and the growing chorus of alarm over a hard Brexit from business groups having any effect on members of Parliament, which soon must decide the fate and shape of Brexit?
“It’s hard to know,” Ford says, noting that the conventional wisdom in Westminster is usually a year behind changing facts. “But I think it is filtering down.”
(Thomas K. Grose is a U.K.-based journalist who has spent much of his career living and working in Britain and Washington, D.C. Grose has reported from across Western Europe and Latin America, regularly contributing to several news organizations, including U.S. News & World Report, Time, USA Today and ASEE Prism magazine. Follow him on Twitter.)
(Pro- and anti-Brexit demonstrators face each other outside of Parliament in london on march 11, 2019. Photo: DAN KITWOOD-GETTY IMAGES)