#ImmigrationAttitudes - UK attitudes to migration

Analysing results from the Eurobarometer

#ImmigrationAttitudes - How are UK attitudes to migration changing - and what might this mean for a post-Brexit immigration system?

In just over 18 months time, the UK will leave the European Union. Immigration was a central issue in the Brexit referendum, and the post-Brexit immigration settlement - for both EU and non-EU migrants - is one policy area that's likely to see major change.

So it's a good time to look at current attitudes towards migration in the UK. The data in this post comes from the European Commission's bi-annual Standard Eurobarometer survey, which asks a range of questions to people in each member state.

Since Eurobarometer 82 (conducted in November 2014), this has included questions relating to immigration and migration, with a further set added from November 2015.

The latest results, from November 2017, were published last month - so we decided to dig into them to see what they tell us about attitudes to migration, both in the UK and the rest of the EU (rEU).

Finding 1: The UK is becoming more positive about EU migration.


#ImmigrationAttitudes - The UK is becoming more positive about EU migration.

In November 2014, more UK respondents had negative attitudes than positive towards EU immigration - and lagged well behind the rest of the EU. But three years later, UK favourable attitudes to EU immigration had increased by 20 percentage points, and almost caught up with other EU countries.

The UK is also catching up based on other measures of pro-EU migration attitudes, including support for the rights that underpin it - and it's interesting to note that on these measures, rEU attitudes have changed little. 

There are similar results when respondents are asked about rights to live / work in (OUR COUNTRY), but these are only available from November 2015, so I've just used the longer timeseries here.

Finding 2: The UK prefers economic migration.


#ImmigrationAttitudes - The UK strongly prefers economic migration.

The charts above show that the gap between the UK and rEU has narrowed more for views about the right for EU nationals to work in all member states. And over the waves of the Eurobarometer, the UK has shown a persistent preference for economic migration from the EU than non-economic migration. The rest of the EU has as well - but not to the same degree.

Interestingly there are some countries where there is less support for economic migration than non-economic migration. This could be due to different interpretations of the question (e.g. does 'move to work' suggest returning to your home country in retirement / if you become unemployed?), or just statistical noise, but it'd be interesting to explore this further.

Finding 3: Attitudes to immigration have become more positive since the referendum.

#ImmigrationAttitudes - Attitudes to immigration have become more positive since the referendum

The UK's referendum on Brexit was about many things, but immigration was certainly a significant part of the debate. The Eurobarometer results show that most of the increase in positive attitudes towards EU migration from UK respondents has come since May 2016 (as a proxy for the referendum date, as well as conveniently being the fourth of seven waves). 

 There are several possible interpretations of this notable post-Brexit increase in support for EU (im)migration in the UK, which include:

1) The referendum acted as a 'release valve' for concerns over immigration, that the very result of the vote reduced;

2) Immigration is simply less prominent in the public's minds since the referendum;

3) UK respondents see EU-related migration as soon-to-be reduced, so are generally less concerned ('It won't be our problem for long');

4) There has been a renewed interest in the UK being an open, outward-looking nation after we leave the EU; or

5) The promise of control over immigration, of a sort that freedom of movement by design doesn't provide, is enough to make attitudes towards EU migration more positive - even if policy itself doesn't change.

There are some caveats to this: these explanations aren't exhaustive, several of them could be true to some degree, and the data doesn't go back further for these questions, so we can't see whether this is part of a longer trend. And it's of course possible that it's just chance that pro-migration attitudes became more prevalent after Brexit. But for those concerned about the UK becoming an insular nation post-Brexit, there's some solace here.

Finding 4: The UK is still one of the most migration-skeptic EU member states.


#ImmigrationAttitudes - The UK is still one of the most migration-skeptic EU member states.

Despite the increasing positive attitudes highlighted above, if we rank EU member states by their attitudes towards EU immigration and migration rights, the UK still comes out relatively low. The table below shows the UK's ranking out of 28 on various measures of  openness.

Again this shows the UK responses becoming more open, from ranking 'least open' among the EU28 on five measures when the questions were first asked to none in the latest wave. But it also shows that the UK remains comparatively skeptical of freedom of movement - and particularly sees economic migration as preferable to non-economic migration.

Finding 5: The UK is more open to non-EU immigration than rEU (but still prefers EU immigration).


#ImmigrationAttitudes - The UK is more open to non-EU immigration than rEU (but still prefers EU immigration).

One area where the UK has been consistently more open than the rest of the EU is in relation to non-EU migration. This isn't broken down by categories of non-EU migration (e.g. Commonwealth, Canada / US / Australia / New Zealand etc.), but in the most recent waves, the UK has been more positive than negative - while there has been no corresponding shift from rEU.

That's not to say that the UK is fully committed to a new global Britain. The UK still has more positive attitudes to EU immigration than to non-EU immigration - although by a much lower margin than rEU.

#ImmigrationAttitudes - What does this mean for a new immigration settlement?

Immigration from both the EU and the rest of the world will continue to be important for the UK after Brexit - and particularly for some of the sectors in which it has a comparative advantage, such as FinTech (which we explored in a recent report for Innovate Finance).

But it's also important that an immigration system has the support of the general public. The British public is not fundamentally hostile to immigration - and in fact in recent years it has become more open, on a range of measures. This suggests that fears about public-led demand for a highly-restrictive immigration policy after we leave the EU are misplaced. While the attitudes revealed in the Eurobarometer data might not be surprising, it's important that perceptions of public opinion about immigration don't drown out their actual views - which could lead to an unnecessarily strict system that is bad for individuals and the economy.

Based on our analysis, for an immigration settlement after Brexit to be in line with the public's views there are three key principles it should meet.

1) It should retain close ties to the EU.

Support for EU immigration has increased by 20 percentage points in the UK since 2014. Government should capitalise on this to ensure that whatever the relationship between the UK and the EU post-Brexit, it continues to allow EU nationals to live and work in the UK.

2) It should take advantage of our openness to the rest of the world.

Openness to non-EU immigration is the one area the UK is more open than the rest of the EU. Positive attitudes in the UK outweigh negative attitudes by 11 percentage points - while in the EU, the net score is -26. 

A new immigration system can take advantage of this to make migration from non-EU countries easier, and put the UK in a strong position to continue to thrive outside the EU. This is particularly important in sectors such as FinTech that will help to drive future of the UK economy, where one in seven workers are from outside the EEA.

3) It should prioritise economic migration.

Of current EU member states, the UK has the second-strongest preference for economic migrants over non-economic migrants - a preference that has stayed stable over time. To retain public confidence in the immigration system, this distinction is likely to need to be reflected in policy.

That does not need to represent an end to non-economic immigration - in the latest wave of the survey, 65% of UK respondents supported the right of EU nationals to live in the UK, against 71% supporting their right to work. But it suggests that a system that does not prioritise economic immigration, at least to some degree, may be less sustainable than one that does. For a lasting settlement that does not see immigration once again become a political battleground, policymakers would do well to remember that.