Net annual migration of EU nationals to Britain has fallen by 75,000 in the past year to its lowest level for five years as the “Brexodus” gets under way, official figures show.
The latest quarterly figures show that total annual net migration to Britain in the 12 months to September fell by 29,000 to 244,000. Net migration from outside Europe rose to 205,000 during the year, masking the fall from inside the EU.
At 90,000, net migration from within the EU means more people are still coming to live in Britain than going home but it is lower than those coming from outside Europe and is at its lowest level since 2012.
The Office for National Statistics said the total number of people coming to work in Britain fell by 45,000 to 248,000, which was driven by a 58,000 fall in the number of EU citizens coming to work in Britain.
This drop was largely accounted for by a 35,000 reduction in those coming to look for work in Britain rather than to a definite job. This suggests that the uncertainty created by Brexit is outweighing Britain’s reputation as the “jobs factory of Europe”.
The fall in EU net migration, particularly of skilled workers, has been reflected in increased demand for skilled workers from outside Europe with the official Home Office quota for skilled workers’ visas being hit for an unprecedented three months in a row leading to overseas medical specialists, software specialists and other skilled staff being turned away despite vacancies.
The decrease in EU net migration has also been partly driven by a 28,000 increase in the number of EU27 nationals returning home to live in the 12 months to September. At 130,000, this is the highest level of EU emigration from Britain since 2008.
The uncertainty over Brexit has led to record numbers of EU27 nationals living in Britain trying to secure their status. Home Office figures showed 168,913 permanent residence documents were issued in 2017. This is the highest ever number and twice the 65,068 issued the year before. Applications for British citizenship from EU27 nationals more than doubled from 15,460 to 38,528.
Other Home Office figures show the number of EU nationals deported or that voluntarily departed after being held in an immigration centre rose by 564 to 4,612 in 2017. The majority had been convicted of serious offences.
Home Office figures published on Thursday showed that 10,538 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Britain through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme since David Cameron pledged to bring 20,000 to the UK by 2020.
Nicola White, the ONS head of migration statistics, said: “The figures also show that non-EU net migration is now larger than EU net migration, mainly due to the large decrease in EU net migration over the last year. However, migration of both non-EU and EU citizens are still adding to the UK population.
“Brexit could well be a factor in people’s decision to move to or from the UK, but people’s decision to migrate is complicated and can be influenced by lots of different reasons.”
Staying in the single market and customs union
The UK could sign up to all the EU’s rules and regulations, staying in the single market – which provides free movement of goods, services and people – and the customs union, in which EU members agree tariffs on external states. Freedom of movement would continue and the UK would keep paying into the Brussels pot. We would continue to have unfettered access to EU trade, but the pledge to “take back control” of laws, borders and money would not have been fulfilled. This is an unlikely outcome and one that may be possible only by reversing the Brexit decision, after a second referendum or election.
The Norway model
Britain could follow Norway, which is in the single market, is subject to freedom of movement rules and pays a fee to Brussels – but is outside the customs union. That combination would tie Britain to EU regulations but allow it to sign trade deals of its own. A “Norway-minus” deal is more likely. That would see the UK leave the single market and customs union and end free movement of people. But Britain would align its rules and regulations with Brussels, hoping this would allow a greater degree of market access. The UK would still be subject to EU rules.
The Canada deal
A comprehensive trade deal like the one handed to Canada would help British traders, as it would lower or eliminate tariffs. But there would be little on offer for the UK services industry. It is a bad outcome for financial services. Such a deal would leave Britain free to diverge from EU rules and regulations but that in turn would lead to border checks and the rise of other “non-tariff barriers” to trade. It would leave Britain free to forge new trade deals with other nations. Many in Brussels see this as a likely outcome, based on Theresa May’s direction so far.
Britain leaves with no trade deal, meaning that all trade is governed by World Trade Organization rules. Tariffs would be high, queues at the border long and the Irish border issue severe. In the short term, British aircraft might be unable to fly to some European destinations. The UK would quickly need to establish bilateral agreements to deal with the consequences, but the country would be free to take whatever future direction it wishes. It may need to deregulate to attract international business – a very different future and a lot of disruption.
Jonathan Portes, a professor of economic and public policy at King’s College London, said the fall in EU net migration was because the UK had become “significantly less attractive to European migrants, for both economic and psychological reasons”, after the Brexit vote. He said this was likely to be one of the factors that explained the slowdown in UK economic growth relative to the rest of Europe and the world.
The annual net migration figure of 244,000 remains more than double the official government target of below 100,000. The immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, said: “Net migration remains 29,000 lower than it was a year ago and once we leave the EU we will be able to put in place an immigration system which works in the best interest of the whole of the UK.
“At the same time, we have been clear that we want EU citizens already living here to have certainty about their future and the citizens’ rights agreement reached in December provided that.”