Early on in the Brexit ‘debate’ I was asked by someone ‘why do you care about freedom of movement? Why is it something that bothers you so much?’ It’s a question that has come up again and again ever since – and though I answer it as often as I have the energy it feels as though it will keep on coming up. It’s usually followed by a number of follow-up questions or statements that, if only those people saying them realised, explain exactly why I care about it, and why it bothers me. Rather than being, as people often suggest, a middle-class, privileged thing, it’s a critical right particularly for the working class, something of benefit to all. Rather than a tool for the neo-liberals to oppress the workers, to shunt people around Europe at a whim, it is a vital workers’ right and fits well into the long history and struggle by workers. It shifts power from the rich and powerful, the multinationals and the exploitative employers, to the workers. It’s something that those on the political left should support, not oppose.
Nothing to do with open borders
First and foremost, it needs to be clear that freedom of movement is not about open borders. Indeed, people might notice that in yesterday’s political declaration about the future relationship between the EU and the UK just two paragraphs after proclaiming the end of free movement, the aim of ‘visa-free’ travel for short term visits is declared.
Even then, it wouldn’t have meant open borders. We have never had open borders in the UK – with the grand and vital exception of the border in Ireland – and freedom of movement has never meant that. We have always controlled our borders (again with the noted exception). Anyone who’s ever been on holiday abroad via airport, seaport or the channel tunnel knows that. The queues at passport control have never disappeared. That would have been so with Schengen, but we have never joined Schengen. So, no, freedom of movement isn’t about open borders.
Not a middle-class indulgence
‘You’re just upset because it’ll make your holidays in the South of France harder’, or ‘it’ll just stop Tarquin and Felicity going interrailling on their gap years’ or ‘you just want a villa in Tuscany’ are just a selection of the dismissive comments I’ve heard when I’ve defended freedom of movement. None of that is even close to the truth. It won’t make holidays in the South of France harder – it’s nothing about that. The rich and privileged have always been able to travel – money gives you that power. Even if visas become an issue, the rich know how to get them. The systems have always been designed to let them find a way. Bureaucracy works in their favour. Money talks. They have the knowledge and the contacts to work the systems – and the systems are weighted in their favour too. The upper classes have gone on ‘Grand Tours’ to Europe for centuries – and sent their daughters to ‘finishing schools’ in Switzerland and so forth since well before the idea of the EU had even been conceived. ‘Ex-pats’ can be found all around the world – whether freedom of movement exists or not.
It’s not just a neo-liberal thing
Another regular complaint – particularly from the left – is that freedom of movement is a tool of the neo-liberal right, to shunt workers around the world at a whim. In practice, this is the reverse of the truth. Removing freedom of movement will give the multinationals more power – the freedom of movement transferred their power to workers. This may seem counterintuitive. It needs to be thought through. What freedom of movement, in its EU form, does is give the individual worker the right to live and work in any of the member states. They don’t need a work visa, they don’t need a job offer, they don’t need to go through any special bureaucracy – just the ‘right to work’ checks that people will be familiar with when they apply for any job in the UK now. Show your passport or similar form of ID. That’s putting power in the hands of the worker.
Bureaucracy favours the rich…
If you don’t have that, then you have to institute some kind of bureaucratic procedure. The two most common aspects are points-based systems and the need for a job offer. Both of these are effectively anti-workers. Points-based systems are naturally biased depending on how the points are determined. They favour people who are more educated, for example – but they also favour people who are better at working their way through bureaucracy – form filling is never simple, as anyone who has ever claimed benefits should know. It puts people off. It’s used as a barrier, and has a ‘chilling effect’. It also puts more power in the hands of employers or agencies. ‘We’ll sort out your visa’ or ‘we’ll work the system for you’, so long as you accept our terms and conditions. Our lower wages, shorter terms etc etc. Gangmasters are empowered, not workers. And if the barriers are in place, this also empowers illegal gangmasters. If you can’t get in legally, then there’s more incentive to work ‘on the black’. If you fail to get a work visa, you’ll be more likely to seek out the criminal element. All round, removing freedom of movement is disempowering for workers, and empowering for the worst kind of employers.
Coming over here…
‘But it helps undercut wages and takes our jobs’. No, it really doesn’t. The evidence suggests that in the past it has been mainly beneficial to wages, except at the very lowest end – and this latter effect (described as infinitesimal by the author of the one report often cited by Leavers) is in itself very misleading. First of all it has come at a time when government policy has been very much anti-worker – if we had freedom of movement and a left wing government, those effects could be negated with stronger and better enforced employment laws. Higher minimum wages (and potentially rules linking executive pay to wages at the bottom end etc), stronger union rights and so forth could outweigh this effect. Moreover, the other consequences of removing freedom of movement – losing full access to the single market, raising prices etc – would mean that even if wages at the bottom end rose a little the cost of living for those earning those wages would increase even more, leaving those workers worse off.
Freedom of movement doesn’t hit jobs either – to think so is to fall for the ‘lump of labour fallacy’, that there is some fixed amount of work that needs to be divided up between however many workers are available. That isn’t how it works in practice, Immigration boosts economies and creates more jobs, both directly and indirectly. Immigrants are employers as well as employed. They consume, they use services, they live. They fill gaps in the market that make our economy more efficient – to the benefit of everyone overall. They’re not ‘coming over here, taking our jobs’ as often as they are ‘coming over here and doing the jobs that need to be done’.
Exploiters gonna exploit…
None of this is to suggest that exploitative employers don’t take advantage of freedom of movement. Of course they do. That’s how they operate. That doesn’t mean that shutting down freedom of movement will help – they’ll exploit the lack of freedom of movement just as much as they currently exploit its existence. They’ll work the systems, putting workers in a worse position. Again, history and understanding of the struggle for workers’ rights should show how this works. Removing the workers’ rights because of exploitative practice by employers isn’t just perverse it simply won’t work. What is needed is better protection for all workers from exploitation. Work on the employers, don’t take away the rights of the employed. Again, things like raising minimum wages and forcing better conditions and union rights are the key, not removing freedom of movement.
So why oppose freedom of movement?
Given all of this, why do people still oppose freedom of movement? This is why I get the most frustrated – and why this really is an issue that matters to me. The potential reasons for rejecting freedom of movement are all bad. One is that you don’t really understand what freedom of movement is. You equate it with ‘open borders’ and believe that open borders are a bad thing (the reasons for that may be even worse). You don’t believe the evidence that it’s not bad for wages and jobs – and policy based on a rejection of evidence is the worst of all. If you reject evidence, you should ask yourself why you reject it. Faced with two potential stories, and without the expertise to evaluate the two sources accurately, people tend to fall back on which of the stories fits with their presumptions. Their prejudices. That brings into play some other damaging myths.
Freedom of movement, benefits and the NHS
The two most common – and most depressing – are those of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefits tourism’. The idea that people are ‘coming over here’ to take advantage of the NHS or to live of our ‘soft’ benefits system. Neither are true, and both are based on prejudice. Health tourism is minimal – and the NHS benefits massively from immigration and freedom of movement in particular, It’s critical to the staffing, and without it the crisis in the NHS will get far, far worse. Benefits tourism is similarly small – and freedom of movement rules allow member states to restrict it almost completely. That either health tourism or benefits tourism are significant problems are damaging myths pushed primarily by right-wing politicians and newspapers. And yet people believe them, even on the left of politics.
Freedom of movement and xenophobia
This, in the end, is the bottom line. Faced by strong evidence in favour of freedom of movement and evidence against freedom of movement that is questionable at best, why would people choose to believe the latter? The only obvious conclusion is that they generally don’t like foreigners and immigration. That means, in the end, xenophobia. Why would it matter that you get a British nurse rather than a Slovakian one, or a British plumber rather than a Pole? They’re not taking ‘our’ jobs, or lowering wages, they’re not costing us money in benefits or putting a strain on the health service, or even in education. Our housing problems are caused by chronic failure to build and a dysfunctional housing market, not on immigrants – and to solve that, surprisingly enough, we need to build more houses. The construction industry uses immigrant workers more than most – and if we want to build more houses this is likely to continue.
All of this misses the point overall. Freedom of movement is a reciprocal right – people seem to tend to forget that it’s not just about people coming to the UK but about UK people being able to live, work, love, marry and more in the rest of the EU. It’s a positive thing. It’s a freedom. By removing it we’re making ourselves less free. We’re taking something away from ourselves. We’re narrowing rather than broadening our horizons – and all for either a misunderstanding of the concept or a misinterpretation of the evidence – or worse, from xenophobia.
So yes, I care about freedom of movement. I want more of it. I want to expand and extend it beyond the EU – and this brings me to the last and perhaps most pernicious of myths, that freedom of movement within the EU is somehow unfair on the rest of the world. ‘Queue jumping’ as Theresa May put it. There are so many problems with this argument. Firstly, the EU has nothing to do with our immigration policies with the rest of the world. The limitations on Indians coming to the UK, for example, are imposed by us, not by the EU. Secondly, to believe that each immigrant from the EU coming here means one fewer from outside the EU should be allowed is to fall for another fallacy closely related to the lump of labour fallacy. It presumes we have a fixed capacity, that we’re nearly ‘full’. We don’t, and we aren’t. We’re not close to being ‘full’ – our population density isn’t even that high, and immigration can actually help us as the population grows, filling gaps where needed. Social care is just one example. The problems associated with our ageing ‘native’ population are made worse by restricting immigration.
And, last of all, look at the human element. Freedom of movement has enabled so many wonderful human stories. So many wonderful people coming to the UK – and wonderful people from the UK going to other places. So many love stories. So many cultural experiences. So much general enrichment. Why can’t we embrace that rather than making it a red line….