In the great ‘tariffs versus talent’ trade off, it remains unclear where EU-UK negotiations are headed and the implications for foreign workers filling much-needed positions on both sides.
The FT reports that employers are urging clarity on the post-Brexit status of EU nationals after new data showed that immigration has fallen to its lowest level in three years, with net migration to the UK at 246,000 in the year to March, compared with 327,000 the previous year.
‘More than half the change was driven by a decline in net migration among EU nationals, and in particular, a 59 per cent rise in emigration among people from the eight eastern European countries — including Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia — that joined the union in 2004’ the FT writes.
Although the fall might satisfy certain members of the UK government, employers are anxious about potential labour shortages should the trend continue. Some organisations are already reporting declining applications by EU nationals to work, for example, in nursing, while the National Farmers’ Union reports a 17% drop in seasonal workers this year. With unemployment at just 4.4%, a four-decade low, and the highest employment rate on record, employers fear a major skills shortage.
However, the UK premier, Theresa May, has shown few signs of relenting to business pressures. As the FT points out: ‘For Mrs May, who spent six years at the Home Office, immigration has never been an issue of economics.’ She was one of few cabinet ministers to fully back attempts to reduce net immigration to the tens of thousands.
Much of this debate has centred on whether to include foreign students in the statistics, and in particular how many of them are overstaying their study visas. Flawed survey sampling had estimated the number of over-stayers at around 100,000—underscoring the hard line, anti-immigration, positions in government. But this figure has recently been debunked by new Home Office checks that now suggest a figure of just 4,600. Whether this prompts the government to take a softer line, at least on overseas students, remains unclear.