The big mouth, the pink beret and a glass of orange squash

She was doing her best to be heard over a man with a giant mouth and a bloke in a pink beret and burgundy nail polish. It was no easy task. But the camera stuck to her as she waited for her moment to speak. The lady — middle-aged, friendly — shuffled in her chair and when all fell quiet, said, “If we allow ourselves to just keep being invaded … We are getting diluted.”

Round of applause.

It was an apt end to a particularly fiery Question Time, dominated by the petty squabbling between big-mouth Farage and beret-touting Izzard. Question Time can be painful viewing at times, but there was something about the calmness of the lady in blue that struck me. She wasn’t really what I imagined of an anti-immigrant flag bearer. She was, well, normal. And, as far as I can tell, she seemed to pretty well sum up what many in the Brexit camp feel: The EU is a threat — something that erodes our sovereignty, imposes unwanted laws and makes this country a more dangerous place.

So, I started to wonder. Should I be worried about the EU? Are immigrants a threat to our way of life? Are we being diluted?

I did some Googling.

On the rise

The first thing I checked was whether or not the stats match the chat. Has immigration increased? What are the numbers?

Well, immigration is on the rise — that much appears to be true. According to the Office for National Statistics, net migration (the difference between foreign nationals arriving and foreign nationals leaving) rose by 10 per cent last year to around 330,000. Net migration of EU citizens stood at 172,000.

Right, so there’s a fair number of people piling in each year, and that number is rising, but might the situation change?

With the UK economy doing relatively well and many European economies still struggling, it looks unlikely numbers will drop. According to Migration Watch UK — a think tank that campaigns against mass migration — the population could grow by 500,000 a year (worst case scenario) in the coming years. It says this is ‘unsustainable’, though it doesn’t say why, beyond pointing to the fact that the country’s services are currently struggling.

Either way, the numbers, at least at initial glance, are quite shocking.

So, if we take what Migration Watch says as read, would leaving the EU be a good way of reducing the number of migrants coming into the country?

Turns out, possibly not.

Firstly, we’d have to do something that no non-EU country with access to the EU free market (e.g. Norway) has done and persuade the EU to give us access to the marketplace while allowing us to shut up shop. At a time when the EU doesn’t want to encourage other countries to think about leaving, this concession seems unlikely.

But assuming we did sort this out, the situation still might not change much. The same Migration Watch are quoted in the National Institute Economic Review (in turn quoted in this blog) as saying that applying the current non-EU migration rules to EU nationals would reduce the number of people coming in by 100,000. So, still a net migration of 200,000.

Hmmmm.

Then there’s the money that would be spent policing the borders more heavily, including Northern Ireland’s entire border with Ireland. At present, people are able to cross from one side to the other without having to flash a passport. Besides stoking tensions in a currently-peaceful region, this would clearly cost a fair bit of money. Perhaps we could do a Trump, build a wall and bill the Mexicans, but failing that, we’d need to splash some cash. (To put this in perspective, I personally know of one migrant who has exploited this route to illegally enter the UK — it’s well easy!)

It all seems pretty unlikely.

Sadly, I think the only sure fire way to bring down migration numbers is an economic crash. You can see from the U.S. that even with metres-high fence stretching the length of a border and a ridiculous budget for border security ($12 billion in 2013), migrants still find their way through. A bit like this.

Too much of a good thing

So I think, like it or lump it, while the UK economy is strong, people will pour into our country. But then, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. According to the Telegraph, because we’ve got alright at keeping people alive, we need migrants — quite a lot of them. Without them, we’d need to borrow a shed load of money. The more migrants, it says, the less we’d need to borrow. And God knows, we love balancing the books *fires imaginary gun at head*.

Then there’s the fact that migrants do a lot of jobs that we’re in the market for. Currently there’s a shortfall in the number of trained British doctors and nurses available to the NHS, meaning we are happily using migrants to plug the gaps.

It’s true, there are many migrants with jobs that Brits can do, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The number of EU citizens working in Britain has risen by 700,000 since 2013 — but the number of Brits in work in the same period has risen by one million. So there are more migrants coming here to work — but there are also more jobs to go round. Economist Jonathan Portes states, “It’s true that, if an immigrant takes a job, then a British worker can’t take that job — but it doesn’t mean he or she won’t find another one that may have been created, directly or indirectly, as a result of immigration.”

Cool, so more migrants might also mean more jobs. But what about wages? A lot of people are also really worried that migrant workers who are willing to work for lower wages than UK residents keep our wages artificially low. Again, it might not be that simple.

The LSE’s Jonathan Wadsworth, who is probably way cleverer than me, thinks this:

“The bottom line, which may surprise many people, is that EU immigration has not harmed the pay, jobs or public services enjoyed by Britons. In fact, for the most part it has likely made us better off. So, far from EU immigration being a ‘necessary evil’ that we pay to get access to the greater trade and foreign investment generated by the EU single market, immigration is at worse neutral, and at best, another economic benefit.”

Hmmmm.

What about the fact that migrants are making the housing crisis worse? Well, supply and demand economics state that when demand outstrips supply, the price rockets up. So by reducing the number of migrants, it stands to reason that house prices would fall, right?

Probably. But there are more than 600,000 empty homes in the UK (of a total of about 24 million). And guess how much of the UK has been built on. Ready?

2.27%.

Clearly increased demand has contributed to the housing crisis, but the lack of house building and the number of uninhabited dwellings is just as big a problem. To me, it makes more sense to tackle the issue of wealthy ownerswho leave their properties empty first, rather than get rid of the migrants who pay tax and contribute to our economy.

Good and bad. But mainly good

So mass immigration poses the UK some real challenges, but it looks like it gives more than it takes away.

And, for me, this just about sums up our relationship with the EU.

Yes, being part of the EU costs us money (not the purported £350 million a week), but — and admittedly this is incredibly hard to measure — we probably make that back and then some by being a part of the EU. Nicholas Barr, another boffin at the LSE, puts it like this, “The reduction in the government’s tax revenues from even a small reduction in growth rates after leaving would dwarf any saving in our net EU contribution.”

Yes, there’s a fair amount of bureaucracy and a surfeit of legislation, but Brussels has also made some really important laws, including legislation to protect victims of domestic abuse, and environmental legislation that has helped improve air quality in the UK.

Yes, the UK isn’t able to strike its own trade deals, but there are some pretty important deals with the EU in the pipeline, specifically a free-trade deal with the U.S. — a deal worth more to Washington than any potential separate deal it could strike with the UK.

And yes, in theory the UK might be able to achieve all these things away from the EU, but that’s a pretty big might, and the fact that these deals and laws are already in place should not be underestimated.

Peace

We clearly have a complicated relationship with the EU and there is a great deal of uncertainty about what might happen in either scenario: remain or leave.

Having researched this for the past week, however, I’m in no doubt we’re better in. I’ve seen some convincing arguments to leave, but none strikes the killer blow. For all its faults, the EU is probably pretty bloody good.

And most importantly — here it pains me to side with Izzard — we need the EU because of what it represents: a project of disparate cultures and ideologies that work together, settle disputes and celebrate differences. The EU brings down cultural barriers, fosters understanding and encourages peace. In a world where cultural and political differences are still enough to provoke war and violence, a project such as the EU is a shining light of tolerance.

Funnily enough, that’s something I think we Brits do quite well. Far from diluting us, I think the EU actually makes us stronger.

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