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Immigration and the Brexit vote: A look at the data

On June 23, 2016, a majority in the United Kingdom voted to exit (or “Brexit”) the European Union, defying most forecasts. One of the reasons cited for this outcome was concern by British citizens about too much immigration from Central Europe and the Baltics.* Is (or was) this concern valid? Let’s see what FRED has to show us about the patterns of net immigration for the U.K. and for Central Europe and the Baltics.

The graph tracks net migration—total number of immigrants minus total number of emigrants—from the early 1960s to 2017 (the latest available date point). Throughout the late 20th century, net migration for the U.K. was quite low, fluctuating between slightly positive (net immigration) and slightly negative (net emigration).

However, there was a sharp increase in the early 2000s. In 2004, the EU expanded to include several countries from Central Europe, and the U.K. was one of three EU nations (along with Ireland and Sweden) to immediately allow migration from these new member states. This policy may have contributed to the 2007 peak in net immigration into the U.K. After that, there’s a sharp decline as the Great Recession (2008-09) reduced economic opportunities. The overall picture of more-recent U.K. immigration is mixed: There was a sharp rise with the 2004 EU expansion, but the years immediately preceding the 2016 Brexit referendum show a decrease in net immigration. But, because net immigration adds to the number of foreign born in a nation (i.e., it is a flow), the immigration spike may have contributed to heightened anxiety in the U.K. about the relatively large immigrant population that had accumulated by the time of the 2016 referendum.

Central European nations and the Baltics had much more net emigration, with two clear spikes: The first and larger of the two was in the late 1980s/early 1990s, which was related to the breakup of the Soviet Bloc. The second was in the early 2000s, related to the EU’s enlargement in 2004. Since that time, migration from these nations seems to mirror U.K.’s experience, although in the opposite direction. This pattern suggests significant emigration from these nations to the U.K. after 2004, perhaps influencing the Brexit vote. Of course, our data aren’t detailed enough to provide a definitive connection between U.K.-Europe immigration flows and Brexit. More research may provide more insight.

* These nations are Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovak Republic, and Slovenia.

How this graph was created: Search for “United Kingdom migration,” check the series, and click “Add to Graph.” From the “Edit Graph” panel, use the the “Add Line” option to search for and select “Central Europe migration.”

Suggested by Asha Bharadwaj and Subhayu Bandyopadhyay.

View on FRED, series used in this post: SMPOPNETMCEB, SMPOPNETMGBR

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