by Luca Merotta and Marta Regalia
1 June, 2017
1. The political debate
The UK general election will be held on June, 8th 2017. The plurality electoral system has guaranteed, for most of UK history, a one-party government, thus favouring accountability and alternation. The snap general elections were called by the Prime Minister Theresa May due to a lack of consensus within the current parliament following the trigger of Article 50 and in order to secure a legitimate parliament and government throughout the negotiation process with the EU. The six main parties accounting for nearly 95% of potential votes are the Conservatives (ECR group), the Labour (S&D group), the Liberal Democrats (ALDE group), the UK Independence Party (UKIP, EFDD group), the Scottish National Party (SNP, Greens/EFA group) and the Greens (Greens/EFA group).
Not only will the position of the next British government on EU-wide issues will impact the final deal resulting from the negotiations, it will also shape the institutional setting of both the EU and the UK. Until an agreement is reached, signed and ratified, the UK will keep having two EU Agencies (EMA, EBA), 73 Members of the European Parliament (20 S&D, 21 ECR, 1 ALDE, 1 GUE-NGL, 6 Greens-EFA, 20 EFDD, 1 ENF, 3 NI) and a Commissioner (Julian King, independent). The redistribution of seats is likely to reshape the political landscape in the European Parliament, with the S&D group losing ground to the EPP group (that includes no British MEPs since former PM Cameron left the group and joined ECR). While the UK enjoys a number of opt-outs in the field of EU migration and home affairs, its departure would correspond with the departure of Commissioner King, who is currently in charge of the Security Union and this would have some repercussions on issues like fight against terrorism and trafficking.
2. Electoral programmes
In the political manifesto of the Conservative Party, the issue of “migration” appears 28 times. Conservatives claim they “will reduce and control immigration” (p. 7) “with net migration down to the tens of thousands” (p. 48) “rather than the hundreds of thousands we have seen over the last two decades” (p. 54), but without damaging the economy, since they will “set aside significant numbers of visas for workers in strategically-important sectors, such as digital technology, without adding to net migration as a whole” (p. 20). Conservatives are therefore open to skilled immigration, although this entails a high cost for employers and families – the Immigration Skills Charge will be doubled to £2,000 per year for companies employing migrant workers and the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas will be increased together with the Immigration Health Surcharge. Moreover, after the referendum on Brexit, the UK has to address the issue of EU migrants. The Conservatives propose to “reduce and control the number of people who come to Britain from the European Union, while still allowing us to attract the skilled workers our economy needs” (p. 55). Finally, the Conservatives propose an integration policy as part of a multicultural society. On the issues of Brexit and the relationships with the EU, the Conservatives prefer “a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union” (p. 6), while continuing to argue that “no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK” (p. 36). The main concern remains trade: Conservatives “want to negotiate a new deep and special partnership with the EU, which will allow free trade between the UK and the EU’s member states” (p. 15).
In its electoral manifesto, the Labour party has a more open view on both immigration and the EU. However, it also links immigration with the UK’s specific labour and skill shortages while making it clear that it “will take decisive actions to end the exploitation of migrant labour undercutting workers’ pay and conditions” (p. 28). The Labour party openly acknowledges “the economic and social contributions of immigrants. Both public and private sector employers depend on immigrants. We will not denigrate those workers. We value their contributions, including their tax contributions” (p. 28). Moreover, it tries to differentiate itself from the Tories by upholding “the proud British tradition of honouring the spirit of international law and our moral obligations by taking our fair share of refugees” (p. 29). On the issue of EU nationals, the Labour party proposes to “immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain and secure reciprocal rights for UK citizens who have chosen to make their lives in EU countries” (p. 24). In contrast to the Conservatives, the Labour party believes that “leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ is the worst possible deal for Britain” (p. 24). It therefore proposes to negotiate a new deal with Europe that puts jobs and the economy first, while continuing to work with the EU on issues such as climate change, refugee crises and counter-terrorism.
The manifesto of the Liberal Democrats mentions, in the chapter on Justice and Equality, “Making the positive case for immigration” as its first priority (p. 72). According to the Lib Dems, “Immigration is essential to our economy and a benefit to our society. We depend on immigration to ensure we have the people we need contributing to the UK’s economy and society, including doctors, agricultural workers, entrepreneurs, scientists and so many others. Immigration broadens our horizons and encourages us to be more open, more tolerant” (p. 77). They propose to make the immigration system work fairly and efficiently, with strict control of borders; to analyse skill and labour market shortfalls and surpluses on a yearly basis to identify what type of migration is needed to meet the UK’s needs; to provide additional government funding for English language classes to help migrants integrate. Regarding refugees and asylum seekers, the Lib Dems propose to “offer safe and legal routes to the UK for refugees to prevent them from making dangerous journeys” and to “apply the asylum system fairly, efficiently and humanely” with quicker processing of asylum claims (p. 78). As the Liberal Democrats campaigned for ‘remain’, they now propose a “soft Brexit”, in which UK citizens will have the final say with a referendum “with the alternative option of staying in the EU on the ballot paper. We continue to believe that there is no deal as good for the UK outside the EU as the one it already has as a member” (p. 13). Regarding EU nationals, the Lib Dems propose that the UK unilaterally guarantee their rights at national level by simplifying the requirements for EU nationals to obtain permanent residence and UK citizenship, while asking that the same rights be enshrined to UK citizens living in EU Member states.
After being strongly in favour of Brexit, the UKIP upholds strong positions on the EU and does not admit compromises or concessions. At the same time, immigration is one of the key points in the UKIP manifesto. The UKIP claims that immigration has affected public services, housing, community cohesion, and the domestic labour market by lowering salaries. Therefore, it proposes to reduce “net migration to zero, putting integration at the top of the political agenda” (p. 5) through a new visa system similar to the Australian one. Regarding EU nationals, UKIP proposes to allow law-abiding EU citizens living in the UK before Article 50 was triggered (29th March 2017) the right to stay in the UK indefinitely, and they ask other EU Member states to grant the same rights to British citizens living overseas.
The SNP, that campaigned for ‘remain’, proposes to maintain Scotland rooted in the European Single Market. If the UK national framework does not allow that, The SNP claims it will demand an independence referendum from the UK. Regarding immigration, the SNP admits that effective immigration controls are important, but also recognizes that immigrants make a significant contribution to Scottish economy and society. Thus, it proposes a fair and robust immigration system that meets Scotland’s social and economic needs since immigration is essential to the strength of Scottish economy and culture. In order to do that, SNP will “press for immigration powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament” (p. 17).
The Green Party, unlike the other UK parties, does not treat immigration and Brexit as central issues of the electoral campaign in their manifesto. The Party’s position on immigration is open to the extent it acknowledges “Britain’s ongoing role in causing the flow of migrants worldwide” (p. 21) and therefore its role in to promoting a humane immigration and asylum system. For EU nationals, the Party proposes to “immediately guarantee the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK and urgently seek reciprocal arrangements for UK citizens in the EU” (p. 11). Regarding Brexit, it adopts a position similar to the Lib Dems’ one: UK citizens should vote on the final terms of the Brexit deal, including an option to stay in the EU.
Figure 1 shows parties’ positions on immigration and the European Union. Negative values indicate negative attitudes towards the two issues. The UKIP and the Conservatives are negative on both immigration and the EU, while the Green Party, the Lib Dems, and the SNP are in favour of both European integration and a more open immigration policy. The Labour shows a positive stance on the EU.
Figure 1 – UK parties’ positions on immigration and European Union
Source: authors’ elaboration on the basis of parties’ respective manifestos
Comparing the space given to the issues of immigration and European Union by each party inside his political programme, we can see that not all parties give to these issues the same importance. For example, the Greens do not devote much space to these two issues, while they are central in the UKIP manifesto.