Immigration is no reason to leave the EU

I’ve become extremely pessimistic about the Leave campaign lately as it has latched on to Faragist arguments about immigration as a major reason to get out of the EU. This is not just naïve liberalism – on virtually every count, the critics of EU immigration are wrong.

A new paper from the LSE’s John Van Reenen and others summarises the existing research.


In normal times we wouldn’t expect immigrants to take natives’ jobs. But what about during and after the Great Recession?

Nope. Well, it doesn’t look like it anyway. None of the other more sophisticated studies from before the crash show a relationship between immigration and native unemployment, and certainly an eyeballing of the post-crash data doesn’t suggest that that’s changed. 

Local authorities also don't show any statistically significant association between immigration and native unemployment.


The national figures don’t seem to suggest a wage depression effect, but it’s less clear – since the Recession immigration has been rising and wages have not. So let’s look at local authorities and see whether areas with high levels of immigration have had lower wage growth.

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Again, no. There’s a very mild downward slope that is statistically insignificant (indistinguishable from zero). The same trend exists at the local level for jobs too, and for “NEETs” (young people Not in Employment, Education or Training).

Even unskilled Brits, who some previous studies have shown suffering a small negative wage effect from immigration, don’t seem to have clearly suffered since 2008 because of immigration.

This isn’t terribly surprising, even if we take a fairly simplistic supply and demand view of things. Immigrants supply labour, yes, but they also demand labour – they spend their incomes on groceries and other things, creating about as many jobs as they’ve taken. That’s a very crude way of putting it, but it might help us to understand why the empirics look so benign.

In both jobs and wages you can correctly say that these don't tell us what the counterfactual is – maybe unemployment would have been even lower without those immigrants. Maybe, though the local authority data undermines that. But there's certainly nothing here that suggests that this is the case.

Taxes and the welfare state

I think most readers of this blog will be unsurprised to hear that EU immigrants make a fairly significant positive contribution to the public purse – most enlightened free marketeers realise that the big costs to the state are of looking after old people, not benefit scroungers.

But the actual contribution of £15bn in the decade up to 2011 (ie £1.5bn/year) is quite something, especially when you consider that we had a hefty deficit for much of that period, so the average person in Britain was a net drain on the public finances.

In other words, as the paper points out, EU immigrants are subsidizing the welfare state, allowing the deficit to be a little bit lower now than it would be otherwise. They don’t increase NHS waiting times, don’t slow down the education of native British kids (poor language skills are offset overall by good old fashioned hard work and determination), haven’t driven up crime disproportionately, and are less likely to be in social housing than native Brits, though that last finding might control for too much.

One area where EU immigrants may make things worse is house prices. (And a plague on yours if you think higher house prices are a good thing.) In fact, even though they add to pressure on aggregate they don't drive prices up locally, but only because natives move away, which certainly isn't a good thing. But readers of this blog, again, know the real cause of, and answer, to the overall problem: build more bloody houses

Of course, none of this matters

The paper is worth reading in full, and as a comprehensive guide to what we know about EU immigration it’s incredibly useful. In particular its discussion of the impact of immigration on productivity is useful and clear.

I doubt this will change anybody’s mind, though, because anti-immigration types have a very annoying tendency to employ motte and bailey arguments about immigration: they make strong, testable claims that immigrants hurt the poor, are a drain on the state, etc, but when you show them that they’re wrong they retreat to woolly arguments about the social impact of immigration.

Those social impacts are very important too, but if those are what anti-immigration people care about, then they should stop making false claims about the economics! As it is I can only assume that they don’t care about the truth and see themselves as fighting a war where dirty tricks are acceptable.

Many also seem to conflate the social problems we have with, say, Eritrean refugees with the social costs of EU immigration. As Ed West reminds us, that’s silly. And although most people imagine that Eastern European immigrants dominate EU immigration, they actually account for less than half of EU immigrants in the UK; and around half of current inflows from the EU. Your social case against EU immigrants had better be as much about the harm caused by Spanish university graduates as by Polish builders.

As for the people saying that we simply need ‘control over our borders’ in principle, that would preclude us from ever signing any free movement treaty with any country, and tearing up the ones we have with Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man in order to protect this principle.

On this front at least the Leavers are barking up the wrong tree. There are many good reasons to want to leave the EU. Curbing immigration isn't one of them.