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EU net migration continues to decline as UK heads towards the general election, but impact of manifesto promises on migration can’t be predicted

28 Nov 2019

Today’s data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that EU net migration had continued to decline, reaching the lowest level since before EU enlargement, as the UK heads towards the general election, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said today.

Today’s data suggest that net migration of EU citizens in the year ending June 2019 was 48,000, 78% below the pre-referendum peak of 218,000 in 2015. In separate population estimates also published today, Poland lost its place as the top country of birth for migrants living in the UK (although the difference between Poland, at 827,000 residents in YE June 2019, was not statistically different for figures from India, at 837,000).

Non-EU net migration was broadly stable at 229,000 in the year ending June 2019, after steady increases since 2013. This makes non-EU considerably higher than EU net migration, although the precise contribution of EU vs. non-EU to the total remains uncertain due to problems identified in the data (see editor’s notes, below).

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “EU net migration has fallen dramatically since before the referendum, and is now at its lowest level since before EU enlargement. The reasons for this will include things like the lower value of the pound making the UK less attractive, improving economic prospects in EU countries of origin, and potentially the political uncertainty of the prolonged Brexit process.”

There has been much discussion of migration policies outlined by the main political parties as the general election approaches. The Conservatives and the Brexit party have committed to ending free movement and introducing an “Australian style” points based system, the features of which are yet to be announced; Labour has signalled that it would consider free movement as part of a negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship, while the Liberal Democrats have promised to end the Brexit process and maintain free movement.

Sumption added: “What will happen to migration in the coming years is highly uncertain, regardless of which party is power. It’s easy to imagine that migration policies are the only things that affect migration, but in reality, policies act more like a filter than a tap. The state of the economy, demand for workers by UK employers, conditions in countries of origin can have a big impact on migration, in some cases even more than changes in policy. That’s one reason why we’ve seen such a big drop in EU migration since 2016, despite the fact that policy has not yet changed at all.”

Currently, the relatively low levels of EU net migration mean that restricting free movement now would be expected to have a much smaller impact on overall migration levels than it would have done in the past. However, this will not always be the case. EU migration has fluctuated up and down over time, and there is no reason to assume this would not continue to happen if the UK were to maintain free movement in the future. Recently revised ONS figures suggest that EU net migration made up a majority of the total from YE June 2013 to YE June 2016.

 

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