Theresa May is treading softly on immigration when Brexit Britain needs boldness

Andrew MacLeod
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Theresa May Takes A British Trade Delegation To India - Day 2
Theresa May must step forward more confidently if she wants to make a success of Brexit (Source: Getty)

Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she will allow the Indian government to nominate business executives to become members of the “Great Club”, a programme launched in 2013 for 100 of the world’s most senior business leaders to more easily get visas into Britain.

The “Great Club” may have resonance in history, reaching back to the days of the Great Game, but it really is a softly-softly policy solution when something grander could easily take place – and elsewhere already has.

Back in the 1990s, Australia led the way in the creation of APEC – the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation – once described cynically as four nouns looking for a verb. While APEC had many political objectives, one of its greatest successes thus far has been in business, in part through the easing of travel regulations for those doing business.

Senior business leaders in APEC member economies – including the US, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Chile, China, and the Philippines – can obtain, each three years, a pre-approved multi-entry business visa called the APEC Business Travellers Card. This wonderful little card avoids constant visa applications and speeds its holders through customs via the use of the diplomatic channel at airports.

Read more: Why Britain’s free movement future lies in the Commonwealth

When one compares the APEC Business Travellers Card to the Prime Minister’s “Great Club”, one sees May’s version for the shy policy suggestion that is.

Why not create an APEC BTC for the Commonwealth? New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Malaysia, and Singapore are just some of the Commonwealth countries that are sure to welcome the idea. They are already signed up to the APEC Business Travellers Card, and to extend a UK BTC to them would merely be the current regime – plus Britain.

After all, if Australia can be in the Eurovision Song Contest, why can’t Britain benefit from an APEC idea?

Commonwealth countries
Several Commonwealth countries are already part of the APEC BTC (Source: Getty)

Australia and India are among several countries that are currently discussing expanding the BTC idea to the Indian Ocean. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why India has responded quite lukewarmly to the Prime Minister’s very mild suggestions on immigration reform. Britain may see calls to loosen visa restrictions as a big change, but India sees it as “ho-hum”.

What is more, a number of Western countries are now facing a significant impending demographic challenge: the shift from the post-war baby boom to the post-war retirement boom.

Read more: Investing beyond 100: Rising life expectancy changes everything

In Australia, 2012 was the first year more people left the job market through retirement than entered the job market from growing old. The long-term issue governments face is how to fund increasing demand for old-aged care and medical services with a shrinking tax base. Do they cut services, raise taxes, raise borrowing, or broaden the tax base by bringing in more working age people? Increased tax, cutting services and increasing borrowing don’t fly.

This leaves us with population growth – more babies and more migrants. There is a 20-year lag before a baby becomes a worker. There is none for a migrant.

Germany has partially solved its problem by bringing in 1m working age people under the refugee programme. This may solve the economic issue, although admittedly it creates another integration issue.

Merkel Visits Migrants' Shelter And School
Germany has partly solved its demographic problems through its refugee programme (Source: Getty)

Britain, up until now, has been relatively well-placed on immigration through the EU’s freedom of movement legislation. Those Polish plumbers that some voted against in the Brexit referendum have actually been a strong economic positive for the United Kingdom.

The ending of free movement will challenge the UK to find replacement workers elsewhere. Remember, this isn’t just crucial to fill the gaps in the labour market left by retirees. Stopping immigration, or reducing immigration, would leave a huge black hole in the public finances.

Post-Brexit, many new migrants may come from the Commonwealth, particularly the subcontinent including India and Pakistan. And this brings in a delicious irony for those few people who voted for Brexit because they didn’t want any immigration at all. They will find, over time, that it will continue at the same or higher rate, but with less of it from the European Union and more from outside.

So far Britain is tiptoeing into the post-Brexit world. What we need instead are bold statements, definitive direction and clear opportunities grasped for post-Brexit Britain.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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