The government's immigration target: does EU immigration matter?
“…will the Prime Minister tell the House in which year we will meet our manifesto commitment to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands?” – David Nuttall MP
“The last year for which EU migration was in balance—that is between the number of EU and British nationals leaving our shores to work in Europe and the number of EU nationals coming to live and work here—was as recently as 2008…” – David Cameron, 15 June 2016
It’s impossible to prove this claim from the available data. Published immigration estimates by nationality before 2011 are known to be inaccurate, as they were found to have missed a substantial amount of immigration from Eastern Europe. We don’t have numbers to replace these.
So we don’t know if the number of EU and British nationals leaving to live in other EU countries cancelled out the numbers coming to live in the UK in 2008.
The Prime Minister’s claim is based on the published data, which doesn’t contain a clear warning that the numbers are inaccurate.
Even if the claim did match reality, it still leaves the government a long way from meeting its net migration target.
Two things need to happen to meet that target. The government would still need to reduce non-EU immigration substantially. And fewer EU citizens would have to choose to come to the UK.
The EU immigration equation
Imagine migration to and from the UK spilt into three groups of people: British citizens, other EU citizens, and non-EU citizens. The government can control the scale of non-EU immigration to an extent, but can’t control the scale of British or EU migration.
The Prime Minister is saying the bits we can’t control were in balance in 2008. In other words the number of British and EU citizens coming to live in the UK was about the same as the numbers leaving to live in other EU countries.
That’s about right based on the published figures. But we know, and the Office for National Statistics says, that they underestimate the scale of EU immigration.
The numbers show about 200,000 British and EU citizens immigrated to the UK from the EU in 2008. About 193,000 emigrated to other EU countries. So according to these figures they roughly balanced each other out.
They’re not balanced anymore. The same figures for 2014 show about 260,000 people coming in and 110,000 leaving.
And as mentioned, the government can’t bring these numbers back into balance itself—it depends on EU citizens choosing not to come to the UK, or more Brits emigrating abroad.
Non-EU immigration would need to be reduced as well to meet the immigration target
As of 2015 about 190,000 more non-EU citizens are coming to live in the UK than are emigrating abroad. So even if British and EU immigration and emigration did reach a level where they cancelled each other out, that would still leave overall net migration at 190,000. Then the government would need to roughly halve the scale of non-EU net migration to meet its target.
The last time non-EU net migration was under 100,000 was in 1997. The closest it’s come in recent years was when it dipped to an estimated 140,000 in the middle of 2013, before increasing again.
So the government would need to do more to reduce the numbers of non-EU immigrants to have a chance of meeting its overall target.