May 15, 2017 / 9:58 AM / 4 months ago

Britain gears up for immigration self-harm

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May addresses supporters and members of the media in front of the Conservative party's election campaign bus at an airfield north of Newcastle, Britain May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Justin Tallis/Pool

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Theresa May is preparing to aim a loaded shotgun at her own foot. When the UK prime minister unveils the Conservative party election manifesto this week, she is likely to reiterate an objective dating back to 2010 to reduce annual net migration below 100,000. That means taking a needless risk with Britain’s economy.

The political appeal of sticking to her guns is clear. Immigration was one of the main factors behind Britons’ vote to leave the European Union last year. May also failed to reduce inflows in her previous role as the UK’s interior minister: net migration in the year to last September was a near-record 273,000, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Even so, viewed through a demographic lens, she is heading down the wrong path. As of 2015, 63 percent of the UK population was between 16 and 64 – the traditional definition of working age – the ONS said in March. As the population grows older this will shrink to less than 58 percent by 2045, it reckons. Importing working-age migrants helps slow the decline. Since UK annual net migration started consistently exceeding 200,000 in the middle of the last decade, the volume of 20 to 36-year-olds has picked up, the ONS says.

Limiting the increase in the workforce reduces Britain’s potential growth and could make it harder to meet a second objective supposedly dear to Conservative hearts – controlling the budget deficit and reducing public debt, which is due to approach 90 percent of GDP in the next year.

The Office for Budget Responsibility has had a stab at measuring the impact on Britain’s debt level over the next half-century, assuming the government does not cut spending or hike taxes. If net migration levels remained roughly the same, debt would be 208 percent of GDP in the fiscal year ending in April 2067. If net inflows fall to near May’s target, that figure jumps to 265 percent.

May will almost certainly secure a big majority on June 8. As such, she could have argued “taking back control” of borders means getting to choose who enters Britain, rather than imposing an arbitrary limit on the number. The risk is that she imposes an extra burden on the economy by striving for a target that has never been hit.

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