It is one of the most authoritative voices to analyse the vociferous divorce between the UK and the EU. The economics professor at King’s College London analyses the initial consequences and denies, among other things, that Europeans arriving on the island have no qualifications.
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“Over the last 9 months EU nationals here, who are understandably concerned about their position, have been applying for documents to certify their permanent residence and there are applications that have been rejected on grounds which are frankly absurd. Such as minor bureaucratic issues asking for documentation which were not reasonable to provide”.
Jonathan Portes, who, when analysing the progress of Brexit, is always supported by data, statistics and surveys. His are not personal opinions without foundation, not even when he opines on his active Twitter account.
Senior fellow of the UK in a Changing Europe programme and Professor of Economics and Public Policy at King’s College London, Portes has written reports on Brexit and is a columnist and regular interviewee in national newspapers and media.
In conversation with The Prisma, he discusses the most recent negotiations between the UK and the European Union.
You’ve said in a recent column that the “UK government is neither ready nor willing to make good on its promises”. Does the EU have reasons to be a bit fed up with the UK?
That was specifically with respect to the rights of EU nationals resident here and UK national residents elsewhere in the EU. I think the point is that there is no desire –either on the part of the UK government or the UK people– to see EU nationals who are lawfully resident here, mostly working and contributing to society, kicked out nor similarly in the rest of the European Union.
So you’d think this issue would be relatively easy to resolve. Across the political spectrum there have been calls here in the UK for the UK to simply say we would let everybody stay. And the UK has been resisting this because it says this is a matter for negotiations and it must be reciprocal.
The EU-27 have now come out and said yes, we are willing to make these reciprocal guarantees and we want them to be very detailed and specific and to include not just residents’ rights but lots of other rights such as rights to access public services and family rights and for these rights to be guaranteed by some form of independent arbitration mechanism, ideally from the European Court of Justice.
The UK government has so far not responded to this, so my point here is that the EU has called the UK government’s bluff. The UK government has been hiding behind the excuse that the EU is not prepared to negotiate and now that the EU has said this is what we are proposing, there has been no response from the UK. So I think there has been an element of hypocrisy in the UK government’s position here.
You’ve said a sharp fall on migration risks damaging the economy. Is that already happening?
Migration data is patchy and unreliable and takes some time to come through, so we have to be quite careful about not drawing conclusions too early about what is happening.
My reading of the data is that there is certainly some indication that migration has slowed since the referendum.
And of course this has nothing to do with any legal or political changes since the referendum, considering of course we are still fully members of the European Union and the EU nationals have full rights here. If there is a fall it reflects a fall in labour demand but also more specifically an unwillingness of the EU nationals to move here or perhaps some EU nationals going back.
In terms of what we’ve seen so far there are some tentative indications that there has been a fall in net migration from the EU. My judgement is that a fall is likely and it probably has already begun, but I wouldn’t want to overstate the certainty.
So that fall hasn’t had a repercussion on economy yet?
Well, of course, the economy has slowed quite significantly in the latest quarter according to what data we have, but again one cannot draw conclusions.
My judgement is that the economy has slowed somewhat, and that may in part be both related to and resulting in a fall in migration, but we can’t draw too strong conclusions at this early stage.
People tend to think immigrant workers coming to the UK are low-skilled. Is that a reality?
No. The answer is that immigrant workers, like British workers, are hugely varied and very much spread across the skills spectrum. So it’s true that in recent years there has been a significant influx of European workers, not low skilled actually for the most part, because most of them are in fact reasonably well educated, but do relatively low-skilled low-paid jobs. But that’s just one part of the labour market.
At this institution –King’s College London– there are a huge number of EU citizens working at all skill levels, from senior professors right down to cleaning staff or porters. And that’s true throughout the London economy and in many other parts of the UK.
And in fact a substantial majority of EU origin workers, just like a substantial majority of non-EU origin workers, and like a substantial majority of British workers are neither very high skilled, they are not professors or bankers, nor are they very low-skilled. They are not farm workers, or agricultural labourers either. Most people, not surprisingly, do jobs which require some degree of skills or qualifications or experience, but not at the very lowest or highest level.
Next edition: Jonathan Portes: “Brexit has reshaped the political landscape”