Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill has a lot going for him. A breath of fresh air in the Westminster enclave, he is a sharp Yorkshire farmer and long-standing Eurosceptic. He also boasts useful experience of the dark side as an MEP, and also a receptivity to interesting ideas. There is therefore reason to think that he is a good man to take on the EU hard men on the hot-button subject of immigration.
However, although he has a good hand to play, he will have to keep his wits about him.
A cautionary tale in this respect from Switzerland, outside the EU but for many years within the single market and thus subject to free movement. Now, Switzerland has a wholesome constitutional provision that any 100,000 citizens can force a referendum on a change in the law; if the referendum succeeds the result itself becomes part of the constitution. Three years ago just such a referendum came out narrowly against mass immigration, and hence against free movement. The Swiss government and the EU dutifully entered into negotiations. The EU, correctly sensing that the Swiss government didn’t have its heart in the referendum result, simply dug in. Out came a face-saving agreement under which Switzerland introduced a weak provision for national preference and theoretical ceilings on EU immigration, and things continued much as they were. A new referendum is planned, but don’t hold your breath.
Might the same thing happen here? It all depends how you read a report a few days ago of Robert Goodwill’s presentation to a House of Lords committee. According to this, he did not want a “cliff-edge” fall in immigration, or for that matter a clone of the Australian points system or US Green Card regime. Instead he was looking for a solution tailored to particular sectors of the economy.
At first sight this could be an ominous case of vague words presaging a surrender. Cue in a congeries of smug Remainers, well-meaning clerics, the blasé BBC and other believers in the brotherhood of man all calling for us to be nice to our European friends. Add intensive background lobbying from the City and industries desperate for cheap labour, and top off with a government that doesn’t want to pick a fight with its own side. You see where it’s leading: we could well end up with a cosmetic provision for possible limits sometime, somewhere to be agreed by both parties.
For the moment, however, I’m inclined to be more optimistic that this won’t happen. Going back to the Swiss debacle, remember that the Swiss negotiated not only under a lukewarm government, but against a background of being surrounded physically by and economically integrated with the EU and a desperate desire to stay in the single market; besides, in their EU relationships they have always felt a deep psychological compulsion to be seen as good and co-operative Europeans. None of those things is true of us. We aren’t as integrated; we have large numbers of MPs with constituents worried about immigration; we can live without the single market (or for that matter any agreement at all); and our instinct is to be friends with, rather than members of, the EU club.
And saying we don’t want an Australian-style points system for Europeans? This could actually be a much smarter move than it looks. The EU knows perfectly well that we already operate a points system in all but name for non-EU citizens. What Robert Goodwill was saying (and although he said it in a House of Lords committee room, he was saying it in large part for EU consumption) was that as regards the EU we are flexible: we’ll be happy to do a special deal, provided we get something in return. (How about our agreeing to take 5,000 of your skilled artisans if you’ll extend the courtesy to our professionals? If we allow 4,000 places to those sponsored by agricultural employers, will you do the same? etc. etc.). Provided we are selective, and don’t agree a disastrous free-for-all for the unskilled, it’s potentially a win-win for both. Furthermore, unless the EU side really wants to follow head-bangers like Jean-Pierre Raffarin of France and do the UK down even if this involves cutting of its nez to spite its visage, there’s no reason why the EU shouldn’t gladly sign up.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong with global trading countries doing regional deals giving special treatment to friendly neighbours. The US does it for Canada; Australia does it for New Zealand under the Trans-Tasman Agreement. And there’s no reason why Britain shouldn’t do it for the EU. Over to you, Mr Goodwill. One thing you can be sure of: we’ll be watching your every move.