Freedom Of Movement Brings Britain Many Benefits - But We Must Find A Way To Engage With The Challenges It Poses


This article was first published on the Huffington Post on 21 October 2016. 

This isn’t leadership we are seeing from Theresa May, it is opportunism, pure and simple and it is deeply disappointing. Instead of seeking to unite a divided country, she has sought to ride the wave.

Whilst the result gives the Government a mandate to withdraw the UK from the European Union, it has no mandate regarding the terms of our leaving. It is not acceptable for the Government to seek to take the decisions that will arise during that process without parliamentary scrutiny. Those who campaigned to leave claimed their primary concern was to ensure Parliament is sovereign - it is hypocritical for them to deny Parliament.

The most contentious part of any deal will be our future relationship with the EU Single Market and the free movement of people. I am clear: we should demand the goal be Single Market membership and a different arrangement on EU immigration.

We know that many people, particularly in Labour constituencies, voted to leave because of concern around free movement. Far from validating the arguments of many Leave campaigners that all the country’s ills can be laid at the door of immigration, we must address these concerns in order to sustain continued support for managed migration and to defeat the forces of hate. 

Free movement of people has brought many benefits. British citizens can freely holiday, work and live in other EU countries. Tens of thousands of EU citizens help power our public services, in particular our NHS. When Jeremy Hunt talked about foreign doctors working in the NHS, he didn’t mention that you are more likely to have an EU citizen treating you than to meet them in the queue.

But whilst free movement has brought many benefits it has posed challenges to local labour markets and community cohesion. To acknowledge this is not to fuel anti-immigration sentiment but it is a simple statement of fact.

If we cannot see the benefits and acknowledge the challenges which free movement has posed, then I do not think we have any hope of forging a national consensus for managed migration in the future.

There are obvious things we can do domestically to mitigate these challenges such as reinstituting the Migration Impact Fund which we introduced in 2010 and was abolished by the Coalition government. 

But clearly there is a desire to end free movement as we know it and replace it. So let me attempt to start to spell out an alternative.

This would involve moving away from the notion of “free movement” to “fair movement.” The public has been led to believe free movement allows some free for all with no control of our borders. So we need something new which can clearly illustrate we have control, meets the needs of our economy, and which can command widespread support.

One way would be to allow travel as we have at present for short stays and holidays only but, in so far as settling and working are concerned, restrict free movement to the movement of labour and offers of employment. This is in line with the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Another option would be to restrict low wage immigration, with a more relaxed approach to high skilled immigration from the EU according to the needs of the economy.

In addition to this, within the terms of EEA agreements, countries have been allowed to take unilateral ‘safeguard measures’ to address ‘economic, societal or environmental difficulties’ caused by being in the EEA. So, Liechtenstein has an agreed number of residence permits for EU citizens. Switzerland’s free movement deal allowed for an emergency brake for up to a year. We should push for something similar.

Some argue that we simply will not be able to obtain such an arrangement and membership of the Single Market. 

Membership of the Single Market is important. It not only removes tariffs, customs duties and quotas on all goods traded within the EU; it provides employment protections, sets minimum consumer and environmental standards and more. If we leave the Single Market and go for a hard Brexit, it could mean trading with the EU under WTO rules which would lead to tariffs in the order of 12% on exports of British meat, 10% on exports of British cars and so on leading to much higher costs for consumers here and challenges for our companies seeking to export into the EU Single Market.

But would we be able to secure this trading arrangement - preferably Single Market membership - and fair movement? One cannot say what can be achieved with certainty given the negotiations have not started yet and our EU partners do not have fixed positions. It is not for us to make the arguments as to why they should refuse to give us what we want. The challenge for us is to put a big offer on the table - that goes beyond immigration and the economy - from which they would benefit, to secure the bespoke deal we seek. We must be realistic but also ambitious.

Our politics is caught between two stools. A populism which refuses to acknowledge the challenges free movement can pose; and a populism that wants to pull up the drawbridge altogether, and places the blame for all the country’s problems at the feet of immigrants. Rejecting both positions may not be fashionable but is the right thing to do. The alternative that I have set out today is I believe a sensible position, true to our values, around which the country can unite.