Immigration: what is the future of free movement?

Saturday 22 October, 17.30 - 18.45 , Garden Room State of the Nation 2016

In Association With:

Video and audio of this debate are available at the bottom of this page.

A UKIP poster showing a winding queue of brown-skinned refugees under the slogan ‘Breaking Point’ provoked a storm of condemnation at the height of Britain’s EU referendum campaign in June. The poster, its critics claimed, went beyond the limits of legitimate political propaganda.  To others, this criticism merely highlighted how the political mainstream uses allegations of racism to curtail an honest debate about immigration. Free movement within the EU has been central to the European project since its inception, but last summer the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, went further still by welcoming people from beyond Europe in the form of Syrian refugees.  Although many welcomed Angela Merkel’s humanitarian stance, others saw it as reckless and irresponsible.  Merkel’s critics seem to have had the upper hand since hundreds of sexual assaults and numerous thefts were reported during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Germany, since many perpetrators were suspected of being refugees from Arab or North African countries. Throughout 2016, the EU has been concerned to close its external borders, and has even struck a deal to pay Turkey to take back any refugees who make it across the Aegean Sea.

Immigration became a key issue during Britain’s EU referendum. There can be little doubt that the success of the ‘Leave’ campaign owed much to concerns about the recent influx of refugees into Europe and a belief that the UK has lost control over its borders. Though there are elements of prejudice in anti-immigrant views, few dispute there are also legitimate concerns about the scale of immigration in recent years. At a time of austerity in public services, rapid population increases in particular areas have resulted in unsustainable pressures on local health, education and social services. British citizens of long-standing are understandably resentful that their communities have undergone dramatic changes as a result of immigration policies about which they have not been consulted. The trend for British politicians to out-source responsibility for immigration to Brussels was one of the key grievances that led to the majority vote for Brexit. The UKIP slogan on the ‘Breaking Point’ poster – ‘take control of our borders’ – resonated with many.

There are many good arguments - humane, economic and political - for welcoming migrants. Many migrants come to the UK and EU because they are fleeing persecution and it seems callous to deny them refuge. Because migrants are often well-educated and hard-working, they make a significant contribution to society. There is also a libertarian argument that everyone should be free to cross borders. In recent years this ‘free-market’ approach to migration has been adopted by many on the left who celebrate free movement as a human right. So why do we have borders at all?  If the EU can manage with lightly policed internal borders, why can’t the whole world? Or do open borders threaten the very fabric of a democratic nation state?