Understanding freedom of movement
Free movement of workers in the EU is a reason millions of UK citizens have benefited from 40 years of European membership, allowing us to up-sticks and move somewhere more exotic; anywhere from Nice to Nicosia. While the immigration debate tends to focus on EU citizens who live here, the lives of Brits who move abroad, whether for a few months, or for decades, are often not mentioned.
But this is not simply a case of just allowing us to enjoy a life in the sun. It has long been said that if Europe could achieve a greater mobility of workers, comparable to levels in the US, for example, then this would help tackle unemployment. This was supported by a recent economic survey of the EU by the OECD. The survey also stresses the need to ensure that highly skilled workers in particular be more mobile to help reduce skills gaps.
The right to free movement includes the right of establishment. This means that a successful self-employed British builder can take an early retirement in Spain, continuing to use their trade, finding jobs locally on the Mediterranean.
The latest figures show that over 700,000 British people are officially registered as living in another EU country. From finding love to seeking out an adventure, membership of the EU allows for us all to pursue our dreams in 27 different countries.
Free movement of workers is, however, the EU initiative I would nominate for reform. When the reality of mass movement of EU citizens happened from 2004, with many citizens from central and eastern Europe moving to the UK in a relatively short space of time, it is clear that we were unprepared for this.
One of the issues with managing EU migration is that there is no natural home for it to sit. The Home Office is focused on migrants from third countries, while HMRC and the Department of Work and Pensions are focused on ensuring that migrants are correctly registered for income tax and national insurance. In 2004 there was simply no central response to tracking where these new migrants were living and what kind of resource was needed from public services, such as health and education.
In addition to that, the migration of hundreds of thousands of workers, many of whom ended up in low-paid jobs, meant that more unscrupulous operators, whether employers, agencies or landlords, took advantage of a new and uninformed workforce.
While much of the response to managing migration needs to be tackled at a national level, the European institutions which extol the virtues of free movement should also help manage the consequences of it. The European Commission could, for example, coordinate an exchange of intelligence between labour inspectorates to ensure that scams aimed at deceiving and exploiting workers across borders are closed down.
Consideration should also be given as to how to gradually build up free movement rights. In 2004 almost 75 million people became EU citizens overnight. Simply seeing what happens, with no opportunity for clawback, is not a solution. The right to establishment for self-employed workers should also be considered, alongside the free movement of workers, otherwise barriers to employment abroad simply result in workers falsely claiming self-employment, usually to their detriment.
Finally, greater analysis of the post-2004 movement of workers should be carried out at a European level. Sometimes the movement of workers to fill skills gaps in the UK, from anaesthetists to bus drivers, simply left skills shortages back in their home countries. Having a real understanding of how free movement of labour can best bring benefits to our economies, whilst focusing on mitigating negative impacts on the ground should help build a prosperous and open EU for us all to benefit from.
Anne Fairweather was third on the London Labour European parliamentary list in 2009. She tweets @AnneFairweather
EU, Europe, migration, OECD