A leading Tory Brexiter on Sunday called on ministers to reopen the UK’s borders to thousands of young workers from EU countries to tackle severe labor shortages post-Brexit which he says is driving inflation.
In a rare admission of the failures of immigration policy since the UK left the EU, former Tory environment secretary George Eustice said Rishi Sunak’s government should start bilateral negotiations with EU countries immediately, with a view to offering young Europeans under 35 the right to two-year visas to work in this country.
Eustice, who is secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs under Boris Johnson, said deals should be reversed so that young UK citizens under 35 can live and work in in two years in the same EU member states where the deals were struck. This, he said, will be part of a necessary “post-Brexit reconciliation” with our European neighbors.
Exclusively speaking to observersEustice, who will leave parliament at the next election, has been highly critical of the Home Office, saying its skills-based immigration rules are failing the country on many levels.
Referring to the list of professions that are allowed to work here, he said: “The flaws in our current so-called skills-based immigration system are becoming more obvious by the day because we have a policy that does not correspond to the needs in our economy.
“We allow people who are considered skilled like lawyers, insolvency practitioners, museum officials, even disc jockeys, if we don’t have shortages in any sectors. But we don’t allow people to come here to work in sectors such as the food industry, although there is a severe shortage of workers in these sectors, and that contributes to inflation.
“So this is the big problem. My proposal is that we start bilateral negotiations with the EU member states, starting with countries like Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states, and expand it to the entire EU in the long run, to establish a reciprocal youth mobility visa procedure.
Asked if labor shortages and the resulting inflationary pressures were caused by Brexit, Eustice said: “I think we need to stop looking at everything through the prism of Brexit. It’s not because of Brexit. But it is because of the failure of our post-Brexit immigration policy.”
His comments, which exposed deep divisions within the Tory party over immigration, also showed how determined some hard-line Brexiters are to shift Tory policy to try to limit the damage caused by leaving the EU economy and labor market.
He blamed Theresa May when she was prime minister for failing to adopt bilateral visa schemes with EU countries after Brexit, which he said he had always supported.
“This idea of no temporary visa schemes did not come from the Vote Leave campaign,” Eustice said. “It’s mainly Theresa May. It’s a left interpretation of what Brexit is about. That’s not what Brexit is about. People want controlled immigration and not pull the drawbridge and nobody let in.”
In May the home secretary, Suella Braverman, told a National Conservatism conference that there was “no good reason why we cannot train enough HGV drivers, butchers or fruit pickers” in this country to fill any labor shortages.
Eustice said the Home Office had misunderstood the situation of seasonal workers, which did not count towards immigration figures because they were only here for six months. It is important that the Tory party separates the debates about legal and illegal immigration and stops using “not very helpful” rhetoric.
Eustice, who comes from a farming family in the West Country, added that Home Office policy was pushing up immigration numbers rather than controlling them, as those allowed in under the skills-based system were told they had to to live permanently, and as a result bring partners and children with them.
In contrast, his visa scheme is only for individuals and only lasts for two years, after which people must return home.
When the UK was a member of the EU, all UK citizens were able to travel and work freely in the EU under freedom of movement rules. But those automatic rights are extinguished by Brexit.
UK citizens currently trying to work in the EU face different bureaucratic requirements and different rules, with some countries requiring visas and other specific job offers.
Eustice, who began his political career as a member of Ukip, said his plan, which he plans to submit to government advisers, would mean thousands of young EU workers would come. in the country to fill the vacancies.
Labor shortages mainly affect the food, restaurant, pub and hospitality sectors, and drive up wages and prices in shops, exacerbating the cost of living crisis.
Eustice said he was not calling for the return of the UK to freedom of movement in the EU but for a solution that would benefit Britain and its neighbours. “It is very important as part of the reconciliation that we are restoring post-Brexit friendship with our European neighbours.”
Last week, in a sign of growing Tory unrest over immigration, a new group of Conservative MPs called on the government to cut a special visa scheme for care workers as part of a plan to reduce net immigration by around 400,000 by the next general election.
The proposals, backed by 20 MPs, including Braverman’s allies, were roundly rejected by Downing Street.
Most EU governments actively welcome more cross-Channel mobility for young people, from school groups and university students to interns and first-jobbers.
Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said during a visit to London in January that Berlin wanted “practical EU achievements” such as youth exchange and mobility programs to be in the bag. Germany’s relationship with the UK. “It’s about looking to the future after Brexit,” Baerbock said. Germany and the UK “need to build new bridges in the exchange of youth, labor mobility, university students and research – in short, in all places where people come together.”
Paris is a bit less forthcoming – especially on possible bilateral arrangements – but France’s consul general in London, Samer Melki, said last week that he was “concerned” about the new relationship between the two countries. . Non-tourist travel is becoming “more difficult, especially for young people”, he said. “It’s very difficult now to come to the UK to do a work experience placement, be an au pair or just do casual work for a while.”
If young French and British people “can’t see each other anymore, can’t learn more about each other even during school visits, which becomes more difficult, it’s dangerous to put the two society on different paths”.
France’s Europe ministry said last month that discussions on “bilateral movement issues” were continuing after Sunak’s visit to Paris, but warned that “balances must be maintained” and the terms of the Brexit TCA (trade and cooperation agreement) must be “properly implemented”.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We have successful youth mobility schemes in 10 countries, including Australia and New Zealand, and remain open to agreeing this with our international partners, including EU members.”
“We are working … closely with the Migration Advisory Committee to ensure that our points-based system delivers for the UK and works in the best interests of the economy, including reviewing the unemployment list to ensure it reflects in today’s labor market.”