The Brexit utopia: towards a migrant-free, fully automated economy? 

The latest ONS data on annual net migration in the UK stands at 606,000 and there seems to be cross-party consensus that the British economy has grown dangerously dependent of foreign-born workers. In their new book, Denny Pencheva and Kostas Maronitis show that such consensus has been evolving since 2010 when then-PM David Cameron introduced an annual net migration target of 100, 000 people.

How many migrants are too many? 

It’s hard to say, because economic migration – both low and high(er) paid – are essential components of growth and resilience for the British labour market. On the one hand, economic and business experts want flexible labour migration policies, often lamenting the limited supply of highly skilled workers with digital skills; workers who can easily adapt to a new, automated, and highly productive world of work. On the other hand, current Home Secretary Suella Braverman states that more British people should be trained as lorry drivers, butchers, and fruit pickers to reduce the number of migrant workers recruited for these roles.  

There are two key lessons to draw from the heated debates in and outside the House of Commons. Firstly, skills shortages are often discussed interchangeably with a shortage of workers. Brexit Britain has both. Secondly, discussions about AI/automation and migration are not separate, but deeply intertwined issues. 

Automation and Euroscepticism  

One of the main arguments of the Leave campaign in the run-up to Brexit was that of “taking back control” over key policy areas, such as immigration. This rhetoric was based on the premise that the British economy had grown far too dependent on migrant labour.  

The often-praised economic utility of EU workers, as well as their high level of employability, and strong work ethic, were no longer enough to mollify the British public. A key challenge for successive Conservative governments before and after Brexit relates to growing the UK economy without relying on migrant workers.  

One potential solution was to increase investment in labour automation technologies in sectors traditionally dominated by migrant workers, such as agriculture. This approach would have the dual benefit of booting out the socially and politically problematic migrant workers whilst boosting the positive self-image of the UK as a global, competitive nation at the forefront of the next industrial revolution.  

Back in 2017, then-Food and Rural Affairs Secretary and staunch Brexit supporter Andrea Leadsom, spoke at the National Farmers Union Annual Conference in Birmingham about the need to invest in technology and machinery to boost productivity and growth. She advised farmers that, instead of complaining about the systemic difficulties of recruiting and retaining EU workers, they should look to automating agricultural labour instead. Robots, not immigrants, should be picking up British berries, according to Leadsom

The 2020 Pick for Britain campaign, which aimed to enlist help with fruit and vegetable harvesting, saw failures across the board: no real investment and rollout in automation technologies, not enough migrant workers, and not enough British workers willing to pick up produce.  

In November 2022, PM Rishi Sunak spoke at the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) about the need to embrace innovation and automation to improve the service provided by the NHS. Alongside arguments about the need to streamline budgets and working practices (read: budget cuts and job losses), Mr Sunak said that the NHS should “embrace robot workers”.  

In our new book Robots and Immigrants: who is stealing jobs? we demonstrate the gap between the rhetorical, abstract fascination of replacing migrants with robots and the lack of investment in and a rollout strategy for labour automation technologies.  

Moreover, discussions of automation and AI aided Eurosceptic arguments in that they were promoting a positive image of Brexit Britain as a global and progressive force which, seemingly, is not racist. Our analysis reveals the false equivalency between the perception peddled by politicians and the media that the free movement of workers creates the very conditions for their exploitation, and the need for Brexit. In other words, that the UK had to leave the EU for the benefit of workers’ rights, not because the country dislikes migrant workers, is a tainted argument.

It’s still the EU’s fault 

If the UK had to leave the EU to be able to invest in innovation and automation, then why are these benefits not evident seven years after the referendum, and over two years since Brexit came into effect?  

Our analysis shows that the EU continues to be perceived as the bad guy, be it by allegedly limiting British sovereignty or by allowing the freedom of movement principle to be abused in the form of flooding the British labour market with cheap labour from Eastern Europe. Such perceptions and allegations have impacted the way in which Brexit is being executed.  

The UK decided to leave the Single Market, and in doing so, attempted to sever all ties with Brussels. This gave rise to the notion that the lack of innovation, investment and rollout of automation technologies and AI in Britain was due to EU red tape. As part of his Conservative Party leadership bid, Mr Sunak vowed to review and repeal thousands of EU laws and regulations to “keep Brexit safe”, suggesting that the British public is not seeing the benefits of Brexit because we need to do more Brexit, i.e., we need more freedom to (de)regulate.  

The EU continues to be perceived as the bad guy, be it by allegedly limiting British sovereignty or by allowing the freedom of movement principle to be abused in the form of flooding the British labour market with cheap labour from Eastern Europe.

Is the British public likely to enjoy an innovative and automated economy without migrant workers? With an annual level of net migration at 600,000 people, and falling last place among the G7 countries in terms of work automation, the UK’s Brexit utopia seems unlikely to materialise any time soon, if at all.  

Dr Denny Pencheva is a lecturer (teaching) at UCL. Dr Kostas Maronitis is a senior lecturer at Leeds Trinity University.

This article reflects some of the core ideas in their new book, Robots and Immigrants: who is stealing jobs?, which is available now.

Notes: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Image credit: automated agriculture by sompong_tom on iStock. Farm workers by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

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