EU and UK politicians need to grasp the integration nettle

Politicians must engage with the social and cultural impact of migration flows, rather than endlessly debating economic issues.

Ipek Gencsu is a research intern at IPPR

Yesterday Viviane Reding, the vice president of the European Commission, criticised the UK government for its “populistic movements and populistic speech” and its immigration myths which were destroying the future of young people in Britain.

Her comments come at a time when the UK-EU dialogue on the issue of free movement is becoming increasingly tense, as evidenced by the new row between Poland and the UK over the issue of child benefits, and EU Commissioner Laszlo Andor’s previous warning that the UK was at risk of developing a “nasty” image because of its hysterical attitude to immigration.

In making her case, Reding stated that “the GDP of Britain rose by 3-4 per cent because of the input of these working Europeans who come to Great Britain”.

But these sorts of economic arguments about the benefits of immigration fail to speak to people’s concerns about the changing face of their neighbourhood, as well as strongly-held feelings about their cultural and national identity.

Many people in the UK who have concerns about migration simply will not be persuaded otherwise by economic arguments.

Instead, it is time for politicians both in the EU and the UK to come up with pragmatic responses that engage with the social and cultural impact of migration flows, rather than endlessly debating the economic upsides and downsides.

Nigel Farage recently stated that he wouldn’t mind being slightly poorer if it meant that we curb immigration. The UKIP leader is not alone in his view that “the social side of this matters more than pure market economics.”

Such sentiments were echoed by members of the public in Nick Robinson’s documentary, The Truth About Immigration, which aired on BBC2 earlier this week.

Unfortunately, the documentary was a missed opportunity. It concluded that we need a more frank and open debate about immigration but didn’t suggest how best to achieve this. We have been debating immigration openly, but the discussion needs to go beyond focusing purely on the numbers.

Instead we need to investigate the really important questions about how the migrants who do arrive could be better integrated into communities in the UK.

The documentary could have asked about what is the best way to welcome newcomers and inform them about how to better to contribute to their neighbourhood, as well as how can we mobilise local funding when needed, for example for schools to be able to improve the levels of English of migrant pupils.

The focus for UK and EU politicians needs to be on how to reduce tensions between groups, how to promote integration and what can be done to support the development of thriving and cohesive communities.

A positive and pragmatic response to integration is much more likely to result in migrants succeeding and thriving in the UK and, in turn, local people responding more positively to migration in their area.

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