One of the key issues in the General Election last year, and Brexit now, is around immigration to the UK. All of the focus that I hear in the media is only about migration from inside the EU, and I only rarely hear about it from outside.

According to the ONS, in the quarter to May 2015:

  • Immigration of EU (non-British) citizens was 268,000.
  • Immigration of non-EU citizens was 290,000.

According to Dustmann and Fratini (2013), with significant assumptions, migrants that come to the UK from outside the EEA (slightly different scope) cost the UK economy significantly more than their EEA counterparts:

The total fiscal impact of EEA migrants in the UK was close to GBP + 8.8 billion per year (an average of close to GBP + 0.6 billion per year). The total fiscal impact of non-EEA migrants [was close to] GBP -6.5 billion per year.

Many of the leave-the-EU campaigners, most vehemently UKIP in the election, cited that the cause of the high number of immigrants was because the EU prevents us from selecting migrant applications.

  • Can the UK, even as EU members, exert control over the immigration of people from outside the EU? Could we introduce a points system for them that Mr Farage suggests, and still allow EU freedom of movement?

  • Given that one argument for reducing immigration is a supposed negative impact on the UK economy, why does the focus not shift to increasing EEA immigration with their net positive impact, and reducing non-EEA?

  • Do your stats for non-EU migrants include refugees? Jun 17, 2017 at 11:34

1 Answer 1


This difference is quite straightforward. For immigration from outside the EU, the UK government could, at any time, enact a law to change the basis on which that immigration occurs. For example, it could choose to reduce the rights of family members to come, it could enact a points based system etc. The fact that it doesn't do that is somewhat separate from the fact that it can do that.

As for immigration from the EU, it is a requirement of access to the single market that there is free movement of people. That means that, with a few temporary exceptions, it is a legal requirement that any EU citizen can move to and work in any EU country. There is nothing a national government can do about that other than leave the single market.

So the practical reason for the focus on EU migration is less about numbers and more about the ability to control immigration. The fact that a lot of the rhetoric has been about numbers is unfortunate and somewhat misleading.

  • Thanks for this. I've learnt more since I posted this, and actually had a response from my MP about it too. General theme: yes, we have points outside the EU. Yes, we can control it. Yes, it has an impact on the economy. No, it's not as politically exciting, but focus is changing. As of last week it's all change now of course!
    – Daniel
    Jun 28, 2016 at 19:21
  • (+1) That's indeed a key difference and probably the main reason but that does not sound like a practical reason at all. If the UK were allowed to add additional requirements, the numbers would probably still be more-or-less the same (as many even in the Leave campaign have acknowledged) and it wouldn't solve any of the actual problems that have been blamed on immigration (say the state of the NHS).
    – Relaxed
    Jun 29, 2016 at 8:46
  • It seems the point is really to have a feeling of control or even to make EU citizens jumps through hoops for the sake of affirming that being working in the UK is a privilege rather than a right EU citizens have on an equal footing with British citizens so a symbolic rather than a practical distinction.
    – Relaxed
    Jun 29, 2016 at 8:47
  • @Relaxed there are some practical concerns with freedom of movement. When it entails large scale economic migration there can be a huge volatility in numbers which makes it very difficult to plan services. However, I would tend to agree with you that the argument has been much more about a symbolic notion of control than any practical concerns.
    – Alex
    Jun 29, 2016 at 10:45
  • 2
    @Alex Freedom of movement doesn't facilitate "large scale economic migration", because it only applies to people who can support themselves (including via work, of course, with access to the same benefits as UK citizens supporting themselves via work). No one can just move to the UK for the purpose of claiming out-of-work benefits.
    – Mike Scott
    Jun 16, 2017 at 10:49

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