Migration and the philosophy of impotence

Impotence is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as a “lack of power to change or improve a situation”.


The net migration figure last year was 273,000 of whom 164,000 people came from outside the EU. The 17th May 2017 London Evening Standard editorial was particularly savage about Theresa May’s pledge to reduce the figure down to the “tens of thousands”. Its editor served in the same government:-

“So you would assume that Mrs May would jump at the chance to bury the pledge. That’s what her Cabinet assumed; none of its senior members supports the pledge in private and all would be glad to see the back of something that has caused the Conservative Party such public grief. But no. Mrs May has kept digging.”

The impression given by the Evening Standard editorial is that migration figures had become an obsession for the Prime Minister, possibly going back to her time as Home Secretary when she patently failed to control immigration numbers.

However, she had at her disposal a means for controlling immigration numbers, notwithstanding freedom of movement which derived from the European Union itself, found in Article 7 of Directive 2004/38/EC which prescribes and defines rights of residence in other member states in a way which might be surprising to some who voted to leave the European Union upon the basis that uncontrolled immigration was their “burning issue”.

Article 7

Right of residence for more than three months

1.   All Union citizens shall have the right of residence on the territory of another Member State for a period of longer than three months if they:

(a) are workers or self-employed persons in the host Member State; or

(b) have sufficient resources for themselves and their family members not to become a burden on the social assistance system of the host Member State during their period of residence and have comprehensive sickness insurance cover in the host Member State; or

(c) are enrolled at a private or public establishment, accredited or financed by the host Member State on the basis of its legislation or administrative practice, for the principal purpose of following a course of study, including vocational training; and have comprehensive sickness insurance cover in the host Member State and assure the relevant national authority, by means of a declaration or by such equivalent means as they may choose, that they have sufficient resources for themselves and their family members not to become a burden on the social assistance system of the host Member State during their period of residence; or

(d) are family members accompanying or joining a Union citizen who satisfies the conditions referred to in points (a), (b) or (c).

Tabloid newspapers failed to refer to the limits of the right of residence in another state, dependent upon the exercise of the discretion of the national government of any member state. In short, if there had been a problem with excessive numbers of penniless EU migrants coming to the United Kingdom for more than a holiday without work then their continued presence was permitted by means of inaction by the UK Government and in particular the Home Office, formerly presided over by the incumbent Prime Minister.

Then, on 14th June 2016, a ruling by the European Court of Justice confirmed that EU rules on free movement did not prevent Britain and other member states blocking payment of welfare benefits if migrants were unemployed and unable to financially support themselves independently. Little attention was given to this crucial decision in which a European legal institution did exactly what tabloid editors accused it of being incapable of. Independent scrutiny of the executive, namely the European Commission. In favour of a member state; in this case the United Kingdom.

As long ago as 5th November 2013 the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London had reported that “UK immigrants who arrived since 2000 are less likely to receive benefits and less likely to live in social housing than UK natives. What’s more, over the decade from 2001 to 2011, they made a considerable positive net contribution to the UK’s fiscal system, and thus helped to relieve the fiscal burden on UK-born workers”.

“The positive contribution is particularly evident for UK immigrants from the European Economic Area (EEA – the European Union plus three small neighbours): they contributed about 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits over the period 2001-11.”

Again, a report not widely disseminated by tabloid editors.

If a high percentage of migrant workers are young this also helps to reduce the dependency ratio – a crucial issue for government budget at a time when the country faces an ageing population with retirement burdens.

More migrants workers are educated to degree level than non-migrants, and this suggests a positive impact on the quality of the workforce.

There is also a particularly attractive positive about European migration. Migrant workers from the continent are likely to be more flexible and return home, if the economic situation were to deteriorate.

Having relied so heavily on economic migration to use it as a source of prosperity and wealth stimulation the idea that it should be taken away has with it a clear and obvious danger. Put simply, there will not be enough hands on the decks. The decks then become tarnished, worn and unfit for purpose. Or the produce rots.

The government’s impotence lies in the mismatch between the truth and the rhetoric. Is the gap too wide between the two to be scaled without party political damage?

There is a conflict of interest because characters at the head of government are connected with the failure to control migration to the extent that it was permissible to do so. That apart, migration was (and still is) in the best interests of the country. Migrants are attracted by buoyant economies. Regrettably the Prime Minister is likely to find that the sure fire way to reduce migration is to reduce the buoyancy of the economy and therefore the prosperity of the country. If she prioritises migration then she is pursuing a single interest to which she is too close. She has history. Lots of it.

Equally, she knows of the economic peril and readily advised audiences prior to June 2016 of the careful consideration that she had given in reaching her decision that Britain’s best interests were served by remaining in the European Union, freedom of movement notwithstanding. At that stage the interests of tabloid editors had evidently not crafted her approach.

As Sophocles said in Antigone:

“I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course that he knows is best for the State”.

Sources and links:-
i) London Evening Standard

ii) ECJ Ruling 14th June 2014, Luxembourg

iii) University College London CReAM paper

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Author: Marc Folgate

Marc Folgate's search for answers to the misery and mess.

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