Free movement is our right. Don’t give it up.

12 October 2017

More than a year after the EU referendum we’re still hearing the same arguments from both sides.

Leavers, including the current government, have interpreted the result as a vote for ending the free movement of EU citizens because of concerns about wages and public services. They say that failing to deliver on this would be a betrayal.

Remainers focus on staying in the single market and say that free movement is the price we have to pay. They sometimes point to studies showing the economic benefits of free movement – about the tax paid by immigrants and so on – but it’s hard to get excited about the numbers. Some remainers acknowledge that these benefits aren’t evenly spread. They say that free movement may have caused problems in some areas but that the answer isn’t to get rid of it – it’s to crack down on exploitative employers and to invest more in schools and hospitals.

Meanwhile it’s looking increasingly likely that the UK won’t reach a deal with the EU because of the UK’s insistence on restricting free movement.

You don’t often hear people saying that free movement is a wonderful thing in itself. But it is. We take it for granted that we have the right to move around within our country – and to leave it – whenever we want. Why should we be allowed to do these things? Not because it’s good for the economy – although no doubt it is. It’s because these are basic freedoms which are restricted only by oppressive regimes like the Soviet Union and apartheid-era South Africa.

Extending free movement across 28 countries with a population of 500 million people is one of the great achievements of the European Union. If you are an EU citizen you have the right to live in any EU country to work or study or just to do your own thing. Millions of people – including millions of British citizens – have taken advantage of this right.

One common objection to this kind of idealistic talk about free movement is that it’s irrelevant to most British people because they haven’t exercised their right of free movement – apart from going on holiday – and have no intention of doing so. Even if they did want to move they would find it hard because they don’t have enough money or the right skills. The implication is that free movement is fine for people who have a second home in Italy or want to work in Paris for a bit, but it’s not going to help ordinary British people who have no desire to live anywhere else in Europe and meanwhile are feeling the effects of immigration from other EU countries.

This is the opposite of the truth. If free movement is abandoned it’s the rich and highly educated who will be the least affected. You can be sure that there will be rules allowing these people to live and work where they want. It’s everyone else in the UK and their children who will find that their horizons have shrunk to the borders of the UK and Ireland. They will find it much harder to move to another European country.  And good luck to a low-paid British person who happens to falls in love with an EU citizen on holiday and discovers that British law says that they’re not allowed to live together in the UK.

Free movement law is sometimes criticised on the grounds that it gives an unfair advantage to EU citizens wishing to move to the UK over people from other parts of the world. Some people don’t like this on principle because they want the UK rather the EU to set the rules on who gets to move to the UK. And on the right, some have suggested that if EU free movement were restricted then the UK could loosen up the rules for Commonwealth citizens. That hardly seems likely given that annual net migration from non-EU citizens is well above the government’s 100,000 target. Some people on the left don’t like EU free movement either because they believe that everyone should be subject to the same rules – or no rules at all – regardless of where they are from. Again, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

It’s obviously true that EU free movement gives an advantage to EU citizens – including British citizens – over people from other countries. There isn’t free movement between the UK and India, so why should we keep EU free movement? Because if we lose it we won’t gain anything and nor will anyone else. A free movement deal between the UK and the US or any other country is not on the cards.

We have had EU free movement for decades. It has enriched the lives of millions of people. It can do the same for countless more of us, our children and our grandchildren. Free movement is our right. Don’t give it up. 

An edited version of this blog was published by Economia on 12 October 2017.

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