Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Breaking the deadlock

We have learned that the way to prevent populists from exploiting anxiety about immigration is not to ignore people’s concerns, but to acknowledge and deal with them, writes Harvey Redgrave

Theresa May has framed the Brexit negotiations as a binary choice for Britain – between continuing to accept free movement exactly as it is now, and complete exclusion from the single market. This is overly pessimistic. An outcome which bridges the gap between those two extremes – reforming free movement, but staying within the European Union or single market – is still possible.

While the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved. And given that other countries, such as France and the Netherlands, have expressed concern and called for reform, it is likely to evolve further. Moreover, while Britain cannot expect to be allowed to cherrypick policies that it wants to participate in or abstain from, it is also true that European leaders do not want an unfavourable Brexit outcome, which would be damaging economically. It is thus conceivable that the EU27 would agree to more substantial reform of free movement in return for a closer relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU (with the UK either staying within the EU, or failing that, the single market), provided the fundamental principle was respected. What might that look like?

Various historical precedents exist. There is David Cameron’s pre-referendum renegotiation of free movement, which ended with an agreement to apply an ‘emergency brake’ on EU migrants’ access to in-work benefits. There is the ‘Swiss model’ – a system of temporary and targeted region and occupation-specific safeguards on the employment of new EU migrants (essentially requiring firms to advertise jobs locally first). Neither of those options are likely to meet the bar of public expectation within the UK. Self-evidently, Cameron’s reforms have already been put to the British public once and were implicitly rejected. Similarly, simply requiring employers to advertise jobs to local residents (a practice already common with respect to non-EU migrants) is unlikely to be perceived as giving the UK enough substantive control over the system.

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A more plausible option would be for the UK and EU27 to agree a bespoke version of the ‘European Economic Area emergency brake’, with targeted safeguard provisions to restrict the flow of EU nationals for a temporary period if there was clear evidence of exceptional inflows or excessive pressures on labour markets or public services. This would be a tougher and more substantive ‘brake’ than that achieved by Cameron in 2016 (which applied to benefits rather than people), but would not violate the fundamental principle of free movement.

Precedents for such a model can be found within a number of other EU agreements, including the EEA agreement and the treaty on the functioning of the EU. Most notably, article 112 of the EEA agreement (which applies to Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) allows the contracting parties to unilaterally apply safeguard measures ‘if serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectoral or regional nature liable to persist are arising’.

Such a system would be enforced in the labour market, by employers, rather than at the border, involving a similar arrangement to the worker registration scheme for ‘transitional control’ of EU8 and EU2 migrants following EU enlargement. EU nationals already here would be required to register but otherwise would be unaffected by these changes. Once the ‘brake’ was invoked, newly arriving EU nationals, as well as having to register, would face additional restrictions if they wanted to work in affected sectors, fulfilling a set of pre-agreed criteria relating to the skill classification of the job. Like the Swiss system, restrictions would thus be targeted at particular sectors, rather than a crude overall numerical cap being set.

Negotiating a brake of this type would not be without challenges. In particular, both the UK and EU27 would need to specify the precise conditions under which the safeguard measures could be enacted – no small feat given the overwhelming evidence which shows that EU migration has benefitted the UK economy and labour market overall. Yet this is not insurmountable. One could imagine the UK and EU27 agreeing to a set of objective measures of labour market pressures agreed in advance, for example, relating to high unemployment or falling wages. It would also be possible to imagine the brake being linked explicitly to large or increasing migration flows. Cameron’s pre-referendum negotiation provides a potential precedent here, with the European commission having agreed to introduce ‘safeguards’ to respond to situations of ‘inflow[s] of workers from other member states of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time’. If the Commission can agree the principle once, they can do so again.

Of course some will say it is unrealistic to expect the UK to be able to get more than Cameron achieved in 2016. Perhaps. But politics is unpredictable, as recent elections in France, the UK and Germany have illustrated. Moral imperative will always be balanced with realism and it hardly needs pointing out that the political context has radically shifted since Cameron’s negotiation. The fact that such a brake would be temporary and that there exist legal and political precedents within previous EU agreements, certainly make this more plausible than some of the other reform options previously floated.

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Others will argue that by accepting that free movement requires reform, we are simply playing into the populists’ hands, emphasising EU migration as a problem when we should be talking up its benefits. This is an argument for the ivory tower, not the real world. The way to prevent populists from exploiting anxiety about immigration is not to ignore people’s concerns, but to acknowledge and deal with them, while exposing the goals of the populists.

Ultimately most people are pragmatic: they understand the contribution made by EU migration to our economy and society, and they want Britain to continue to be open to new talent and skills from abroad, but they also want their government to manage the pressures that arise from migration. This is not unreasonable. Politics must respond to those anxieties, rather than pretending they do not exist. The best way to do that is through reform of free movement in a way that respects the principle, securing the gains, while managing the pressures.

The alternative is to accept the logic of a ‘hard Brexit’ – leaving the single market in return for ending free movement. This might make sense if the government’s ambition were genuinely to reduce the volume of EU migration. Yet all the evidence points in the other direction. The reliance of key sectors of our economy, particularly hospitality, food, manufacturing and social care on EU migration, mean the government would be likely to seek to attract the same or similar levels of EU migration that exist currently, since doing anything else would lead to severe labour shortages. If EU migration continues at the same level as before, except with additional bureaucratic hurdles placed in the way, will the public really accept that greater control has been exercised? There is also the question of illegal migration, which would surely rise as a result of the end of free movement (with people arriving at the border as ‘visitors’ but then staying on to seek work). Far from delivering greater control, the government would have merely succeeded in undermining public confidence in the system.

We owe it to future generations to do all we can to avoid that scenario. The important issues that most drive public concern about EU migration – lack of control, undercutting, the pace of change – can be dealt with either by tightening up current rules or by seeking (realistic) reform within the EU. There is an alternative to the current rush towards a hard Brexit.


Harvey Redgrave is senior policy fellow for immigration at the Tony Blair Centre for Global Change and managing director of Crest Advisory. He tweets @Harveyred1


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Harvey Redgrave

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