Ending free movement – the Brexiteer shibboleth that assaults our freedom, prosperity & security

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“After many years of campaigning,” tweeted Priti Patel, “I am delighted the Immigration Bill, which will end free movement on 31st December, has today passed through Parliament.” She then went on to assert, “We are delivering on the will of the British people” – an extraordinary falsehood given that polling has consistently shown a higher proportion of the population is in favour of keeping freedom of movement, than voted for Brexit.

In the ComRes poll for the BBC in early 2017, only 26 per cent wanted to ditch free movement; 16 per cent wanted to remain in the single market and keep free movement as it is, while a further 52 per cent wanted to remain in the single market with some limits on free movement. The latter could have been easily achieved by implementing the controls on free movement which the UK, alone of all EU member states, never enacted. A further poll by Survation for the Channel 4 Brexit Debate in 2018 found 63 per cent wanted to keep free movement, much to Nigel Farage’s horror on the night.

Fast forward to November 2019, when campaigning for the general election was in full swing, and a YouGov poll for Sky News found that 56 per cent favoured free movement, but crucially only a little over half of Leave voters (53 per cent) opposed it. While the YouGov poll showed a slight majority of Conservative voters in favour of ending free movement (46 per cent versus 41 per cent in favour of keeping it), a Focaldata poll for Best for Britain two months later found that the outcome had flipped: 58 per cent of those who voted Tory in the 2019 general election were in favour of retaining freedom of movement.

Freedom of movement is aspirational – to wander and be welcomed where we will, to contribute while broadening our horizons and bettering ourselves, maybe even to meet our soulmate and fall in love. This is the stuff that dreams are made of. Given a constant majority in favour of freedom of movement, how on earth have we reached the point where our government is crowing about stripping this valuable right and privilege away from us? Before we can answer that question, we first have to understand what freedom of movement is, what it is not, and the dirty games government has been playing in respect of it.

The biggest misunderstanding about EU freedom of movement is that it is not necessarily immigration. It may become such, but at the most basic level it is the right to live, study, work, establish a business and/or retire anywhere in the EU – so long as minimum income requirements are met. Once admitted to a country, if the EU citizen does not become employed, self-employed or set up a business within three months, they may be removed at the host state’s discretion. After five years’ residence they may apply for the nationality of the host state. This qualifying period of ‘five years residence’ may be longer than five years in actual calendar years, as absences of under two years are permitted, and do not re-set the clock to zero.

At this basic level, borders are very much still in place and under the member state’s control. The member state may refuse admission on the grounds of public policy, public health or public security. Under the deal David Cameron negotiated for the UK, the UK’s borders would have been strengthened still further as the grounds for refusal of admission were lowered from ‘does’ to ‘likely to’ constitute a threat, allowing spent past convictions to be taken into account even if the ‘threat’ was not imminent.

The UK never acceded to the next tier of freedom of movement: Schengen. This was the abolition of internal borders to allow the unfettered free circulation of EU citizens within the Schengen area, but with a concomitant strengthening of external borders. However, as someone who travelled between France and Germany every Monday morning, and back again every Thursday evening for three years, I can testify that I still had to show a passport to leave or enter these Schengen countries. Indeed, the Schengen Agreement provides for the re-establishment of internal borders in emergency situations, such as terrorism and public health issues, as we’ve seen during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the UK was never part of the Schengen area, it benefited from the Schengen Information System (SIS), a sophisticated database that helped to keep us safer by providing alerts for wanted or missing persons, absconders and fugitives, vehicles requiring checks and misappropriated objects, whether stolen property or evidence in criminal proceedings. UK Police have said they use this system roughly 539m times a year, and there is no substitute. Brexit being Brexit, we lose access once ‘transition’ ends.

If freedom of movement could be controlled, how did ‘ending it’ become the shibboleth of the Leave campaign? For that we have to look at myths, lies and propaganda spread by government, campaign groups and the press, as well as the failure of pro-EU actors to counter it. Admittedly it is a Herculean task to get the truth about free movement across to the public, when roughly 85 per cent of the mainstream printed press (measured by circulation) is right wing and it is such a complex topic.

Immigration is an umbrella term for four different types of migration:

  • Free movement for EU citizens, which is subject to controls, as we have seen.
  • Non-EU legal migration, according to the laws of the UK, over which the UK always had 100 per cent control since, with the exception of free movement, immigration is an area of national, not EU competence.
  • Refugees and asylum seekers, governed by a combination of international agreements, the most important of which is the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. (The EU’s Dublin Treaty III, which introduced the concept of refugees being processed in the first EU country in which they arrived and the possibility of member states returning refugees to that first EU country, was an ‘enhancement’ that we lose after Brexit.)
  • Illegal immigration. This occurs in all countries, no matter who is in charge of making laws or enforcing borders. The clue is in the name: ‘illegal’ – people who choose this route do not respect laws or borders, no matter who is making the laws or enforcing the borders. It is not freedom of movement that facilitates illegal immigration, but rather transport, tourism and trade, as people stow away to gain entry. Not all illegal immigration is voluntary: there is people trafficking for modern slavery, prostitution, organ harvesting, etc.

Unfortunately, our government never clearly explained this. It blurred the lines between the four forms of migration and sent out mixed messages for years with its unachievable, arbitrary targets to ‘get immigration down’. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, the number of EU nationals relying on freedom of movement to come to the UK has plummeted, but overall immigration has increased. This is the government’s dirty little secret: the pace at which our economy is firing and growing requires immigration to sustain it. Pre-pandemic, unemployment was relatively low, below the 5 per cent economists normally consider healthy to help prevent rampant inflation ­– although that will not be of any comfort to any individual experiencing it. Meanwhile, according to official figures, job creation was surging.

Even worse (in my book), our government failed to explain the extraordinary benefits that immigration has brought this country and the life-changing opportunities freedom of movement provided to us Brits, especially the working classes, most of whom would not be able to afford taking such a risk under a ‘third-country national’ régime. As well as compensating for a declining birth rate, the absence of specific skills in the workplace and the unwillingness of the indigenous population to undertake certain jobs, immigration can lead to an injection of entrepreneurial spirit, as new arrivals work extra hard to succeed, and a more diverse and vibrant culture. Freedom of movement meant that Brits could pursue businesses and careers that would not be viable in the UK market alone, acquire new skills that made them more employable in the UK market and escape recessions by taking up a job elsewhere in the EU until demand picks up in the UK. There are wider and more general benefits of strengthening friendships and ties between nations.

None of this has been properly articulated to the British public, which has allowed populists to fill the vacuum by focusing on people’s fears of immigration. It is worth noting that ‘fear of the other’ is a natural human instinct borne of millennia of one group of humans attacking another, and has helped humans to survive. It is not necessarily racism per se, although it is possible that some individuals oppose immigration due to racist sentiment. Any government worth its salt should put in place measures to help the public address the fear of immigration, as well as mitigants, to prevent perceived disadvantages of immigration arising.

The main fears were of British culture being swamped or lost, of downward pressure on wages while simultaneously placing an additional burden on our benefits system, and of public services, particularly GP practices, hospitals and schools, being overwhelmed. Given that our vibrant cultural sector contributes in excess of £32bn to UK GDP annually (23 times that of fishing, for example), at first glance these fears may appear to be unfounded, but there was perhaps a problem in the unequal distribution of the fruits of this success. More generous grants to councils and communities to promote British culture locally, using more participatory democracy to decide awards, might have gone a long way to allay these fears.

The discussion of the impact of immigration on wages has largely relied on lazy stereotypes that bear little, or even no, relation to the hard evidence. In her time as home secretary, Theresa May allegedly commissioned at least nine reports into the impact of immigration on wages, but suppressed them all because they didn’t support this populist narrative. Even Jeremy Corbyn, whose party was ever the most enthusiastic proponent of free movement, fell into the trap of making inaccurate, simplistic statements about immigration depressing wages. This is because although immigration increases competition for jobs, it also increases overall demand, which leads to job creation.

A University College London study did eventually find a small, negative impact. It concluded an inflow of immigrants the size of one per cent of the UK-born population leads to a 0.6 per cent decline in the wages of the 5 per cent lowest paid workers, but to an increase in the wages of higher paid workers. The workers most vulnerable to wage decrease are already established migrants, as new migrants tend to bring the same skills. Research by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) found that there is a difference between EU and non-EU migration in that, while EU migration has no discernible negative impact on UK wages, non-EU migration depresses them. Another study by Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) found that of three cohorts – native British workers, EU workers and non-EU workers – it was the EU workers who were the most profitable to the UK per capita, in that the tax they pay far exceeds the benefits they claim. Non-EU workers were also ‘more profitable’ than native British workers. This may be due in part to the EU’s Posted Workers Directive, which aims to prevent workers from other EU countries under-cutting workers in the host country, by requiring the employer to remunerate them according to the terms and conditions prevailing in the host, not the home, country. More recently, Oxford Economics found each EU migrant will contribute, on average, £78,000 more than they take out in public services and benefits over their time spent in the UK. They concluded:

‘”Taken together, this means that the migrants who arrived in 2016 will make a total net positive contribution of £26.9bn to the UK’s public finances over the entirety of their stay. The value of this to the UK’s public finances is equivalent to putting approximately 5p on income tax rates (across all marginal rate bands) in that year.’

Frustration at the inability of parents to get a place at their preferred school for their children, or large class sizes; finding affordable housing; and experiencing difficulty getting doctor’s appointments, or long waiting times for treatment on the NHS, were all genuine issues in some communities. The main cause of these problems has been chronic underfunding of public services by successive conservative governments. An ageing population and lifestyle-related health issues, like obesity, places increasing pressure on the NHS. A perfect storm has been created by the atomisation of family units into greater numbers of single parent or single adult households at a time when social housing stock has been severely depleted by conservative governments selling it off without replacing it. They even failed to make good on promises to build affordable housing in the private sector. NONE of the 200,000 starter homes to be built by 2020 that David Cameron pledged on his election in 2015, for example, were ever built.

However, it was so much easier to blame immigrants than to admit to policy design and delivery failures. This is because immigration is not evenly spread across the country and some communities bear a higher burden than others. Gordon Brown’s government had anticipated this and set up the Migration Impacts Fund in 2008, financed by a levy on visas rather than the taxpayer. As soon as they came to power in 2010 the Conservatives scrapped the fund, claiming it was ineffective, although they continued to charge the levy on visas. Despite the valiant efforts of MPs like Caroline Lucas, the Conservatives have refused to provide alternative funding for communities experiencing a sudden population increase. Instead, both government and its media backers have continued to demonise immigration and migrants.

The unjustified toxic attitude to freedom of movement has given rise to a number of myths. These include:

  • Ending freedom of movement only impacts foreigners; Britons’ rights will remain unchanged. Any Leave voter could be forgiven for believing this, as government has gone out of its way to present ‘ending free movement’ as something done to others. There has been no mention of our loss of rights. Indeed, when she was prime minister, Theresa May gave ambiguous testimony before the Commons Liaison Committee that seemed to imply that the free movement rights of Britons would be unaffected by Brexit. In fact, ending free movement ends our rights to live, study, work, establish a business and retire in the 31 countries of the EU and EEA/EFTA. Citizens of those countries only lose it in one: ours.
  • We could travel to Europe fairly freely before we joined the EEC; it will be the same again. No, it won’t. Terrorist attacks, cheap travel and mass refugee flows have completely changed the legal landscape. The barriers are now far higher to move to any country, and the costs are greater. Health insurance, for instance. Brits will no longer have what started as an E-111 form and became the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Also, as a visa is at Schengen level, rather than individual member state level, visits to each country are cumulative and you can’t exceed three months in total in any given six-month period.
  • Only the middle classes use freedom of movement. This is the myth I find most sad, as the Cummings propaganda machine sought to paint those of us who are pro-free movement as Waitrose-shopping, quinoa-and-avocado-eating elitists. It’s untrue. I’m proof of that. Working class people do use freedom of movement. Perhaps not as many as might, but then again that’s down to government not explaining the benefits of free movement, or doing anything to encourage working class people to take advantage of it. Even so, large numbers have found it for themselves, and been rewarded for their adventurous spirit by social mobility.
  • It’s no loss; all it amounts to is shorter queues at the airport and a bit less paperwork. True, ease of travel in terms of streamlined immigration formalities, unlimited duty free, delayed and cancelled travel compensation, pet passports, emergency consular assistance at any EU country’s embassy and free roaming are all advantages. Freedom of movement is so much more than ‘tourism with benefits’ though. The right to live, study, work, set up a business and/or retire abroad, on the same terms as the host country’s nationals, is an extraordinary privilege – both life-changing and life-enhancing. It’s an horrific loss.
  • For many businesses and professionals, freedom of movement is not a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘need to have’. Musician and composer Howard Goodall has written about the punitive impact ending freedom of movement has on creatives, particularly musicians. Brexiters no doubt have their favourite song, favourite TV show and favourite film, yet many seem oblivious that people have to train for years and work incredibly hard to produce these delights, and so they remain indifferent to the plight of creatives. Perhaps this is because we only ever hear about the people who make it rich, but the average author in the UK earns only £10,000 per annum.
  • Other sectors, from science to engineering, for which your average Brexiter may have more respect, are also negatively impacted. Take Rolls Royce, for example. How much do you think it makes on the sale of an engine? It doesn’t; it makes a loss. The services it bundles with the engine are what drives profit. For companies with a business model like this, free movement is an advantage as it cuts the cost of dispatching a British engineer to an EU country. Our economy is 80 per cent service-based and the EU is our biggest customer. Ending free movement means British workers will be at a competitive disadvantage to their EU counterparts, due to the extra cost of new Brexit red tape.
  • Freedom of movement is discriminatory against migrants from other countries; a points-based immigration system like Australia’s is fairer. These were two of the arguments advanced during the debates on the Immigration Act, which has just passed into law. Neither is accurate. The British government was always at liberty to ‘upgrade’ non-EU immigration rights, as immigration is a domestic, not an EU competence. It did not do so, because freedom of movement is a reciprocal right. British migrants enjoy the same rights in a host country, that nationals from that country enjoy in Britain. This may not be the case in non-EU countries. For example, a Kenyan person could emigrate to the UK and once they became a UK national, they would have the exact same rights as all other UK nationals. This would not be the case if I were to emigrate to Kenya, where there are different property rights depending on race, and where women encounter barriers men do not, to enforce their rights. Besides, what is wrong with us having special arrangements for free movement on our own continent, in the same way we do for the four nations within the UK?
  • As to a points-based system being fair, that depends on how it is designed. Australia’s system was designed to attract migrants, not to deter them. The fact so many sectors have begged for exemptions suggests the UK’s version is neither fair nor fit for purpose. In particular, the use of a salary threshold as a proxy for ‘skilled workers’ has set off alarm bells, even as the pandemic has thrown a spotlight on a wide range of workers previously labelled as ‘low-skilled’ who have proved to be essential. As Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome said during the Immigration Bill debate:

“Our key workers are not low skilled; they are underpaid. They should be rewarded with a pay rise, not threatened with deportation. The purpose of the Bill is to close our borders with Europe. Those who make over £25,600 a year will be allowed in, and those who are paid less will be kept out. That is what a points-based system looks like. It is free movement for those who can afford it and a hostile environment for everyone else.”

That brings us full circle to the Immigration Bill. Technically it is the EU Withdrawal Act 2019 that ends freedom of movement for the 66m British citizens. The Immigration Bill ends it for incomers from the EU and for Britpats resident in the EU. Those EU citizens already settled here have had their rights scaled back too, particularly with regard to family reunion, although they retain their rights throughout the EU and EEA/EFTA. Special thanks must go to Baroness Natalie Bennett, who introduced an amendment in the Lords to allow us to retain free movement, but which was voted down. As Cumbernauld, Kilsyth & Kirkintilloch East MP Stuart C. McDonald described it, “This is a bad Bill – bad for families and bad for businesses – that sells EU nationals short and extends the scope of the hostile environment.”

It would be unfair to give the impression that all Tory MPs are evil, even though they vote for bills like this. Several gave earnest speeches in support of one amendment or another. Tim Loughton, with the support of David Davis and Edward Timson, spoke passionately about affording adequate protection to children. The same David Davis, supported by Andrew Mitchell, Steve Baker and Richard Fuller, highlighted the injustice of unlimited immigration detention, reminding us that the UK is the only country in Europe not to place limits on it. Sadly, no amendments passed. It is noticeable that, with only a couple of exceptions, the newbie cohort of 2019 Tory MPs are particularly inflexible, insensible to the use of amendments to improve bills, and lacking in the courage to defy the whip. The government is driven by a desire to win rather than to make good law for the people of the UK.

Now that the Immigration Bill is a fait accompli, what can we do? Make more noise! We must continue to make our feelings known: write letters to your local newspaper, email your MP and comment on their social media posts; talk to your Leaver friends and family about it, and try to dispel any misconceptions they may have, and why not check out the EFTA 4 UK movement? Had Theresa May done as Irna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway, did when her country voted 52-48 per cent to reject EU membership, and sought a consensual solution, we might very well have remained in the EFTA. This would have satisfied Brexiters who wanted out of the EU and to have an independent trade policy, while providing some compensation to Remainers by allowing them to retain freedom of movement. But no,Theresa May lacked that vision. It doesn’t mean that we can’t achieve it though.

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron said,

“This is a thoroughly depressing Bill, one that is entirely political and deeply impractical. That is the kind of Bill, or Act, as it will become, that does not stand the test of time. That we are celebrating the loss of the freedom of British people and thinking it is a good thing would be comical if it were not so tragic, confident though I am that this will not last.”

Amen to that.