Immigration Policy for a Post-Brexit Britain

Theresa May has some explaining to do.

Photographer: Nick Ansell/Getty Images

A key demand of Brexit voters was to take back control of the U.K.’s immigration policy. Prime Minister Theresa May has promised she will -- but hasn’t said what she’ll do with this control once she has it.

Many Brexit supporters are hoping for a severely restrictive system. This would be a mistake, and May ought to say so. Liberal rules on immigration, exercised at Britain’s discretion, would best serve Britain’s interests.

As things stand, the ruling Conservative Party is pledged to bring net migration down to the “tens of thousands.” A figure in the lower part of that range would certainly be too tight. Even if such a policy were feasible, which it isn’t, it would injure the economy and make friendly post-Brexit relations with the European Union all the harder. Control doesn’t require, and shouldn’t mean, excessively tight restrictions.

QuickTake Why Britain Voted to Quit the European Union

What would a fair and enlightened system involve? First, expedited, low-cost access for the skilled workers in information technology and other specialties that Britain’s economy needs. Second, preferential rules for the EU citizens who currently enjoy guaranteed free entry. Third, a means to curb sudden surges that would overstretch the country’s public services.

Britain saw net inward migration of 327,000 people in the year to March 2016; of those, 180,000 were EU citizens. Those are large numbers, reflecting the relative strength of the U.K. labor market. May will want to reduce them, but she should do it judiciously. She has ruled out an Australian-style points-based system (Britain uses a points-based system for non-EU immigrants already), saying it affords too little control over total numbers. That could easily be remedied with a hybrid system based on points-based permits and overall caps.

The real challenge will be political: dealing with the disappointment many Brexit supporters will feel if the new system fails to stomp on overall numbers. For the sake of the economy, May should be willing to disappoint them -- and to explain the benefits of a liberal approach, under British control.

Public discontent with immigration in Britain is nothing new; for half a century, opinion polls have shown majority support for lower immigration. But successive governments have often surrendered to misplaced fears rather than trying to challenge them. May will have to do better -- pointing out, for instance, that concerns over asylum seekers are exaggerated. Asylum applications peaked in the early 2000s. Nearly two-thirds are refused, and asylum-seekers represent only around 7 percent of total immigration.

Britain will most likely have to accept some restrictions on its access to the EU’s single market in exchange for resuming control of immigration -- but the terms of this deal are open to negotiation. They shouldn’t be, and needn’t be, punitive. There are signs that some European policy makers, at least, are open to compromise.

If May does the right thing, there’ll be some unhappy Brexit supporters. That’s too bad -- but with luck, the majority can be persuaded to see sense. Britain can resume control of immigration policy without needlessly blighting its prospects.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.