Welcome to EU Politics Decoded where Benjamin Fox and Eleonora Vasques bring you a round-up of the latest political news in Europe and beyond every Thursday.
In this edition, we look at the prospects of the UK’s relationship with the EU changing in the coming years, and how government and opposition are at odds with business leaders on migration.
Editor’s Take: Beware of kites flying in Westminster
Reports that UK ministers are looking at ways to scrap trade barriers with the EU to give businesses easy access to the EU’s single market, a la Switzerland, betray several things.
Firstly, Rishi Sunak’s government recognises that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement is a poor substitute for EU membership in terms of trade, particularly as the UK enters what seems set to be a prolonged recession.
Alongside trade in goods and services, the end of freedom of movement also carries a major economic cost.
The UK is particularly reliant on high levels of net migration. According to the House of Commons Library, more people have come to the UK than left each year since 1994.
Since the end of freedom of movement in January 2021, more EU nationals left the UK than arrived – an estimated 12,000 in the year ending June 2021. That has been offset by a large increase in third-country migration. Figures published on Thursday (24 November) by the Office for National Statistics in London stated that net migration hit a record high of 504,000 in the past year, up from 173,000 in the previous year.
The Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast that net migration will be at around 200,000 a year from 2026 onwards.
Even so, businesses are panicking that they cannot fill the 1.2 million job vacancies across the UK, with the hospitality, agriculture and tourism sectors in particular trouble, and are calling for the rules on EU nationals to be relaxed.
However, on migration, the economic will is coming up against the political won’t. Home Secretary Suella Braverman says that she wants net migration to be in the tens of thousands, echoing a promise made over a decade ago – and never kept – by former Prime Minister David Cameron.
Earlier this week, both Sunak and his Labour counterpart Keir Starmer both played down the prospect of loosening the UK’s new immigration rules to increase economic migration. Instead, they said that businesses should focus primarily on the 7 million people in Britain who are unemployed and not looking for a job.
If Sunak is in hock to his party, for whom a hard Brexit is an article of faith, Starmer is trying to reassure the voters in northern England and Wales who voted for Brexit in 2016 and then Boris Johnson in 2019 that he will not re-open the question of EU membership. Consequently, Labour has ruled out a return to the EU single market and freedom of movement.
The irony of trying to copy the EU-Swiss arrangement is that neither the Swiss nor the European Commission think it is a model worth copying. Besides, the European Commission rejected a UK proposal to have single market access without freedom of movement when Theresa May was Prime Minister.
Sunak’s Conservative party are around 25% behind Labour in opinion polls, a margin that will take a near miracle to overturn in the next two years. It is also hard to imagine that a Labour government would not seek closer economic and political ties with the EU. In other words, the kite-flying in Westminster, and the wider state of UK politics, suggests the current Brexit settlement is unlikely to remain intact for long.
Chart of the week
The chart below shows migration flows to the UK since its exit from the European Union.
Italy-France reconciliation? Italy and France agreed on Wednesday to set up bilateral working groups and cooperate in strategic sectors, seemingly thawing the icy relationship that developed over the reception of migrants from the Ocean Viking rescue vessel.
Map of Italy’s fascist monuments goes online. More than 1,400 monuments, street signs and plaques honouring fascism have been put online in the first nationwide attempt to document the symbols of Benito Mussolini’s regime that still dot the urban landscape of Italy. While Germany systematically scrubbed clean any sign of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime after World War Two, Italians took a much less rigorous approach to removing traces of Mussolini’s 21-year dictatorship.
French bronchiolitis crisis highlights staff shortages. A bronchiolitis epidemic impacting infants and children is ripping through France, putting increased strain on an overburdened and understaffed health sector.
Spanish government, banks to ease mortgage conditions for vulnerable citizens. An agreement to help one million vulnerable citizens mitigate the impact of inflation on their monthly mortgages was announced by the government and representatives of the banking sector on Tuesday.
UK plans to scrap thousands of EU laws ‘unfit for purpose’. The UK government’s plans to give ministers the ability to tear up around 2400 pieces of EU law on the UK statute have been dismissed as ‘unfit for purpose’ by the government’s own regulation watchdog.
Inside the institutions
European Parliament cyber-attack by Russia. The European Parliament came under a major cyber-attack on Wednesday afternoon (23 November), just hours after EU lawmakers voted to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.
There is a gas price cap, finally. The European Commission tabled its long-awaited proposal for a measure to limit excessive gas prices on Tuesday (22 November) following months of pressure from EU countries. However, the agreement left many disappointed. France, Spain and other member states have called on the Commission to “significantly raise its ambition” on a proposed EU gas price cap ahead of an extraordinary meeting of the bloc’s 27 energy ministers in Brussels on Thursday (24 November).
EU budget or state aid to help farmers? European farming ministers are still torn on whether it is more appropriate to use the EU budget or state aid to bail out farmers facing increased prices of inputs such as fertilisers.
Greenlight for gender quotas for company boards. The European Parliament gave its final approval on Tuesday (22 November) to a law that will implement quotas to boost gender balance on corporate boards across the bloc.
What we are reading
The next week in politics
- A quieter week in Brussels, at least for ministers. The Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council will take place early next week, as well as the EU-OACPS (African, Caribbean and Pacific Group States) ministers’ meeting. Towards the end of the week, the Competitiveness Council is expected to focus on research and space policy.
- Back to the future: The European Parliament will host a follow-up meeting with the citizens who participated in the Conference on the Future of Europe on Friday (2 December). They will discuss how the EU is developing proposals based on the one-year deliberative democracy exercise.
- On the routine side, EU lawmakers will be busy with their committee meetings.*African, Caribbean and Pacific Group States
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]