Two weeks ago, I went back to Germany to celebrate my friend’s 40th Birthday. You might ask why this is relevant in the context of today’s ONS report on record low net migration from the EU, which has dropped to 90,000 year-on-year for September 2017. My German friend, who I met in Oxford 19 years ago, is unemployed, ‘between jobs’ as he calls it. When I suggested coming back to the UK as people with his experience are highly sought after, he laughed at me. Today’s announcement reminded me of this conversation.
The net migration figures published are showing several worrying trends. Despite a record number of job openings as published yesterday we are seeing an accelerating trend not only of fully integrated EU citizens leaving (130 thousand in 2017 vs 105 thousand in 2016) but also fewer EU citizens wanting to come to the UK (220 thousand in 2017 vs 267 thousand in 2016).
I do not blame my German friend laughing off the idea of working in the UK. The European economy is booming with GDP growth of 2.6% compared with 1.4% in the UK. Europe has shaken off the effect of the financial crisis while the UK has lost its shine. Both the decrease in immigration and increase in emigration of EU citizens as published today is showing that the UK is losing the battle to attract and even retain the ‘brightest and best’ as the Prime Minister set out as on objective in February 2017.
It is not only the growing economy in Europe or the fact that the UK is the only developed country where real wages have fallen despite a growing economy over the last 10 years that is deterring EU citizens like my German friend from coming to the UK. To attract and retain the brightest and best the UK needs to create a welcoming environment.
A recent report by the Home Affairs committee confirms that negative perceptions of immigration are driven by poor policy and successive governments’ unfortunate rhetoric that either sees EU citizens as a drain on resources or as economic commodities to be tolerated. The3million member Heero Miketta sums up the feelings of many:
“We were planning to become citizens and stay here. But that really isn’t an option in a country so split, so angry, so aggressive - and with a growing wave of racism and nationalism.
“The citizenship process is pricey and patronising. It treats us as if we are begging to become part of a society that doesn’t really want us.”
Integration and building good communities is as important to EU citizens living in the UK as it is to their British neighbours. It is in the UK government’s gift to make this happen. For EU nationals to feel truly welcome in the UK again we have to shift how immigration is perceived in this country. The government can show the way by dropping the arbitrary immigration target and by adopting a simple, fact-based immigration policy that tackles the issues and concerns rather than being populist, divisive and reactive.