Brexit Was Expected to Slash Immigration. Instead It Hit a Record.
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Brexit Was Expected to Slash Immigration. Instead It Hit a Record.

U.K. government has allowed in more students, higher-skilled workers and families fleeing Ukraine and Hong Kong

By DAVID LUHNOW
Fri, May 26, 2023 8:51amGrey Clock 4 min

LONDON—When the U.K. voted to leave the European Union in 2016, many backers of Brexit hoped the move would cut immigration by ending the right of EU residents to move here freely, a growing trend that some Britons felt was taking jobs away from locals.

Instead, immigration has risen to a record high, as growing numbers of migrants from non-European countries have outstripped a sharp decline in those from the EU. Though the ruling Conservative Party has repeatedly pledged to cut migrant numbers post-Brexit, it has instead let in more in a bid to boost stagnant economic growth.

Data released on Thursday by the Office for National Statistics showed that net migration during 2022 rose by 606,000, the largest increase on record. The figures don’t include migrants who arrived illegally on boats across the English Channel, the number of whom surged 60% last year to a record of about 45,000.

“Numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that, and I want to bring them down,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Thursday.

The U.K. experience illustrates that even if industrialised nations want to curb migration, and take drastic steps to do so, they can come under pressure to allow it to avoid economic damage from labor shortages. In the U.K., the labor force is now smaller than it was pre pandemic, and some industries have complained they can’t find enough workers.

It also underscores the political headache this trade-off presents. Thursday’s immigration numbers elicited criticism among some Conservative Party lawmakers, who said voters wanted this influx brought down. Sunak’s government announced new restrictions this week on how many family members visa-holding students could bring to the country. Polls show that Britons have mixed views on whether migrants are a boon or not, but they put a lot of weight on whether the government is seen to be controlling the flow of people into Britain.

Contributing to the rise was the granting of humanitarian visas to some 300,000 people from Ukraine following the Russian invasion and from Hong Kong amid growing political repression in the former British colony. But it was also fuelled by a sharp rise in visas for students and workers from non-EU countries. About 136,000 visas were granted to students’ families in 2022, an eightfold increase from 2019.

Most economists agreed that Brexit would liberalise trade with the rest of the world but raise trade barriers with the EU, Britain’s largest trade partner, and that the net economic effect would be negative. Most economists also expected that greater migration from the rest of the world wouldn’t be enough to compensate for the decline in European migrants, another net negative, said Jonathan Portes, an economist at King’s College London who tracks immigration.

“We were right about the first part and wrong about the second,” he said. “We were right about the basic economics, but a policy that what we thought would be a modest liberalisation [of migration with the rest of the world] has turned out to be de facto quite a significant liberalisation” he said.

Whether the increase in numbers is part of a longer-term trend is still too early to tell, said Madeleine Sumption, the director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. Many of the students who have arrived in the U.K. will eventually leave and there will likely be less migration from Ukraine and Hong Kong in coming years. That could push down the numbers toward the longer-term average of about 200,000 to 250,000 a year.

Before Brexit, any EU national had the right to settle and work in the U.K. During the referendum, the “Leave” campaign said the U.K. should have more control over who entered the country. After voting to quit the EU, the U.K. government in 2021 introduced a new immigration system that only allowed in people who met certain criteria—such as being paid 26,200 pounds a year, equivalent to $32,400, or having certain levels of qualifications. This system was aimed at avoiding a glut of low-paid workers into the U.K., which had fueled the backlash against immigration, while encouraging companies to invest more in their workforces and increase pay.

In 2022, total long-term immigration, measured as anyone who stays for longer than a year, was estimated at around 1.2 million. Of that total, 925,000 were from non-EU nations.

Even now, as the government has allowed more visas for higher-skilled jobs from doctors to bankers, it has tried to resist letting in lower-skilled workers.

“What they’re not willing to do, by and large, is open up to low-wage jobs, which previously had been done by EU workers,” said Brian Bell, chair of the U.K.’s Migration Advisory Committee, which advises the government. It also meant that EU workers no longer got preferential access to the U.K., vastly increasing the influx from countries such as India.

This new system, however, was implemented just as a worker shortage and high inflation started to take hold during the pandemic. The U.K. is the only major Western economy whose workforce is still smaller than it was pre pandemic, due to a combination of long-term illness, lower immigration from Europe and people taking early retirement. The Bank of England said those shortages have stoked inflation as companies have been forced to increase wages to attract workers, while other companies simply can’t grow because they can’t find enough workers.

What is clear is that illegal migration has an impact on public opinion. The U.K. government has focused on stopping illegal migration, largely in the form of small-boat crossings from France. Sunak has repeatedly pledged to clamp down on this and has signed a deal with France to help bust smuggling rings. The government is also threatening to deport migrants who arrive illegally to the African country of Rwanda. This policy has so far been blocked by the courts.



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Some chocolatiers and coffee makers say they will have to pass on the extra cost to consumers

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Global prices for cocoa and coffee are surging as severe weather events hamper production in key regions, raising questions from farm to table over the long-term damage climate change could have on soft commodities.

Cultivating cocoa and coffee requires very specific temperature, water and soil conditions. Now, more frequent heat waves, heavy rainfalls and droughts are damaging harvests and crippling supplies amid ever growing demand from customers worldwide.

“Adverse weather conditions, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, have played an important role in sending several food commodities sharply higher,” said Ole Hansen , head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank.

The spikes in prices are a threat to coffee and chocolate makers across the globe.

Swiss consumer-goods giant Nestlé was able to pass only a fraction of the cocoa price increase to customers last year, and it may need to adjust pricing in the future due to persistently high prices, a spokesperson said.

Italian coffee maker Lavazza reported revenue of more than $3 billion for last year, but said profitability was hit by soaring coffee bean prices, particularly for green and Robusta coffee, and its decision to limit price increases.

Likewise, chocolatier Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli said in its 2023 results that weather and climate conditions played a major role in the global shortage of cocoa beans that led to historically high prices. The company had to lift the sales prices of its products and said it would need to further raise them this year and next if cocoa prices remain at current levels.

Hershey ’s chief executive, Michele Buck , said in February that historic cocoa prices are expected to limit earnings growth this year, and that the company plans to use “every tool in its toolbox,” including price hikes, to manage the impact on business.

In West Africa, where about 70% of global cocoa is produced, powerhouses Ivory Coast and Ghana are facing catastrophic harvests this season as El Niño—the pattern of above-average sea surface temperatures—led to unseasonal heavy rainfalls followed by strong heat waves.

Extreme heat has weakened cocoa trees already damaged from heavy rainfall at the end of last year, according to Morningstar DBRS’s Aarti Magan and Moritz Steinbauer. The rain also worsened road conditions, disrupting cocoa bean deliveries to export ports.

The International Cocoa Organization—a global body composed of cocoa producing and consuming member countries—said in its latest monthly report that it expects the global supply deficit to widen to 374,000 metric tons in the 2023-24 season, from 74,000 tons last season. Global cocoa supply is anticipated to decline by almost 11% to 4.449 million tons when compared with 2022-23.

“Significant declines in production are expected from the top producing countries as they are envisaged to feel the detrimental effect of unfavorable weather conditions and diseases,” the organization said.

While the effects of climate change are severe, other serious structural issues are also hitting West African cocoa production in the short- to medium-term. Illegal mining poses a significant threat to cocoa farms in Ghana, destroying arable land and poisoning water supplies, and the problem is becoming increasingly relevant in the Ivory Coast, according to BMI.

The issues are being magnified by deforestation carried out to increase cocoa production. Since 1950, Ivory Coast has lost around 90% of its forests, while Ghana has lost around 65% over the same period. This has driven farmers to areas less suited to cocoa cultivation like grasslands, increasing the amount of labor required and bringing further downside risks to the harvest, the research firm said.

The Ivory Coast’s cocoa mid-crop harvest—which officially starts in April and runs until September—is expected to fall to 400,000-500,000 tons from 600,000-620,000 tons last year, with weather expected to play a crucial role in shaping the market balance for the season, ING analysts said, citing estimates from the country’s cocoa regulator. Ghana’s cocoa board also forecasts a slump in the harvest for this season to as low as 422,500 tons, the poorest in more than 20 years, according to BMI.

Neither regulator responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, extreme droughts in Southeast Asia—particularly in Vietnam and Indonesia—are resulting in lower coffee bean harvests, hurting producers’ output and global exports. Coffee inventories have recovered somewhat in recent weeks but remain low in recent historical terms. Robusta coffee has seen a severe deterioration in export expectations, while Arabica coffee is expected to return to a relatively narrow surplus this year, said Charles Hart, senior commodities analyst at BMI.

The global coffee benchmark prices, London Robusta futures, are up by 15% on-month to $3,825 a ton. Arabica coffee prices have also surged 17% over the last month to $2.16 a pound in lockstep with Robusta—its highest level since October 2022. Cocoa prices have more than tripled on-year over these supply crunch fears, and risen 49% in the last month alone to $10,050 a ton.

“Cocoa trees are particularly sensitive to weather and require very specific conditions to grow, this means that cocoa prices are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as drought and periods of intense heat, as well as the longer-term impact of climate change,” said Lucrezia Cogliati, associate commodities analyst at BMI.

Cogliati said global cocoa consumption is expected to outpace production for the third consecutive season, with intense seasonal West African winds and plant diseases contributing to significant declines.

Consumers hoping for a return to cheaper prices for life’s little luxuries in the midterm may also be in for a bitter surprise.

“There is no sugarcoating it—consumers will ultimately be faced with higher chocolate prices, products that contain less chocolate, and/or shrinking product sizes,” Morningstar’s Magan and Steinbauer said in a report.

“We anticipate consumers could respond by searching widely for promotional discounts, trading down to value-based chocolate and confectionary products from premium products, switching to private-label from branded products and/or reducing volumes altogether.”

The record-breaking rally for cocoa and coffee is likely more than just a flash in the pan, according to Citi analysts, as adverse weather conditions and strong demand trends are likely to support prices in the months ahead. The U.S. bank estimates Arabica coffee futures in a range of $1.88-$2.15 a pound for the current year, but said projections could be lifted if the outlook for 2024-25 tightens further.

At the heart of it all, climate change is set to play a major role, as the impact of extreme weather events could exacerbate the pressure on cocoa and coffee supplies, according to market watchers.

“I don’t expect prices to remain at these levels, but if we continue to see more unusual weather as a result of global warming then we certainly could see more volatility in terms of cocoa yields going forward, which could impact pricing,” said Paul Joules, commodities analyst at Rabobank.

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