The ability to travel, study, live and work freely across the European Union must not be relinquished, writes Young Fabians vice-chair Ria Bernard
There is no doubt that immigration was a major factor in determining the decisions of British voters in the European Union referendum. The Leave campaign argued strongly that the freedom of movement clause that the United Kingdom accepted as terms for its membership of the EU, prevented it from limiting the number of immigrants entering the UK. The Leave camp were quick to claim that EU nationals were taking British jobs and pushing down wages, that they were putting a strain on our public sector and flooding into Britain to take advantage of our welfare system.
However, many of the issues in terms of wages and jobs were to do with the government’s failure to put in place firm legislation to prevent exploitation of migrant workers, to invest in infrastructure that would address the shortage of housing and school places. In terms of the public sector, we know that many EU nationals contribute a great deal to our public services as nurses, doctors, teachers and administrative staff. Freedom of movement has enabled businesses to work more collaboratively and effectively within and outside the UK through employment of highly skilled professionals, economists and researchers from across the continent. So EU nationals are contributing to and helping to prop up our hard-pressed public services, yet we are at risk of losing them.
Freedom of movement, as one of the founding principles of the EU, has allowed citizens from EU countries to move, live and work within different member states for decades. The UK’s membership of the EU, and the freedoms this permits, is taken for granted by someone of my generation.
Freedom of movement has had an overwhelmingly positive impact, socially and economically, for all member states, while also promoting harmony, peace and solidarity. On an economic level, freedom of movement is one of the pillars of the Single Market, which the UK are keen to retain access to in order to secure our economic stability. Yet, free movement also means that the jobs gap in certain sectors of a particular country are filled by migrants who are willing to work there. This has had a knock-on effect on unemployment figures across Europe, with the OECD suggesting that free movement has reduced the average unemployment rate across the EU by 6%.
Equally, at a time of increasing threats to national security, the co-operation between our criminal and judicial systems has facilitated stronger protections in terms of crime detection and prevention, counter terrorism and extradition. On a social level, we have become accustomed to travelling freely across EU; exploring cultures, cuisines and languages. We have become part of a community that tolerates and promotes freedom and collaboration through justice, workers rights and trade legislation. An end to free movement will likely see a decline in all that has offered economic stability and social solidarity. We will become an isolated island at a time where globalisation makes international collaboration all the more important.
Angela Merkel has been adamant that the UK cannot remain in the single market while dropping freedom of movement. If we were to remain in the EU, could we negotiate the controls on migration that the Leave campaign argued for?
At present, with freedom of movement and the single market intertwined, then it appears we cannot. But as a Remain voter, I always argued that remaining within the EU gave us a much firmer stance from which to make the case for the positive changes needed to make the EU work better for all member states.
I do not believe that all Leave voters want to close the borders completely – many would like to exercise some control over the number who enter the country. Can we therefore not find a way to remain within the single market and observe freedom of movement? Be it returning to the old system of freedom of workers, as opposed to freedom of citizens to move between states without firm job prospects; or whether we look into remaining a member of the European Economic Area which gives us some flexibility on immigration but retains access to the single market. It is not going to be easy and there is no clear solution.
Yet, we should never forget where the concept of a united European bloc came from or its objective to avoid further conflict and promote peaceful resolutions across the continent. From my perspective, our ability to travel, study, live and work freely across the EU; our collaboration that ensures security and peace; and our social and economic benefits should not be relinquished.
Ria Bernard is vice-chair of the Young Fabians. She tweets @RiaB_22
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.