The refugee crisis in Europe has created a huge degree of anxiety, uncertainty and resentment across the continent. Many Britons look on with concern and anguish – despite our relatively protected position from the mass movement of people – and the issue has been hijacked by the vocal detractors of free movement in an attempt to increase resentment against the EU. This is both ill-advised and profoundly cynical and ignorant.
The refugee crisis has little to do with free movement, except for the fact that free movement and the Schengen Agreement – which we are not party to – means there is minimal border control in Europe; making it easier for this mass movement of people to cross the continent once they are here.
However, refugees and economic migrants do not automatically become citizens with all the rights that citizenship entails; thus they do not have the rights Europeans enjoy under freedom of movement. In time, we are likely to see many failed asylum applications and relocation of applicants to their countries of origin. Furthermore, the very fact that there is a large camp in Calais is proof that we do not have totally open borders as many suggest.
What we see is free movement of people having its reputation tarnished by false association with a number of factors:
- The refugee crisis
- The lack of willingness by the government to produce and implement policies that reduce inflow (which there is much scope to do even within current legal constraints)
- Non-EU immigration (which is the main cause of cultural anxiety)
- The change of mood since the economic crisis.
Amidst the railing against free movement there is a danger of creating a negative perception amongst the public. If whenever they dip their toe in the EU debate they just hear discussions, warnings and complaints about immigration the Leave campaign will collectively appear very negative, immigration focused and easy to characterise as regressive. Crucially, by rejecting freedom of movement out of hand, and seeking to abolish it as soon as possible, you concomitantly reject the Single Market and thereby reject an economically secure secession from the EU.
The only way of neutralising all of the uncertainty stoked by the opposition and guaranteeing an economically secure, de-risked Brexit that can be negotiated within the short space of time allowed, is to continue our participation in the Single Market. This means retaining freedom of movement. This is the key to winning the referendum and thereby restoring democracy and self-governance in the United Kingdom.
From that position of security and strength we have a world of opportunities open to us. In the future we could potentially activate the “emergency brake” provision in the EEA Agreement as a temporary safeguard measure against net migration numbers that cause a strain on resources and infrastructure. The government will be in a position to create and implement a coordinated set of policies to improve the management of our borders and reduce numbers. We can push for reform of the EEA and eventually seek to address underlying issues with freedom of movement; in this we would likely have allies across Europe.
I speak here of potential, none of this is guaranteed, I don’t pretend it is; I cannot dictate what future governments do. What is guaranteed is that we will not have the potential to do any of these things if we remain in the EU which we almost certainly will without compromises and the ability to sell a de-risked Brexit proposition.
Tragically, this is unacceptable to a number of inflexible and uncompromising eurosceptics who instead reject freedom of movement and the Single Market. As a result of this the Leave campaign emanates uncertainty and risk and consequently will be picked apart with ease by the Remain campaign.
The fact that so many are unwilling to compromise, or better yet, acknowledge that freedom of movement actually has many positives, is a disease in euroscepticism and it will lead to failure.
The ability to move freely across Europe is beneficial in many significant ways and amidst the grumbling we must remember that a great many Britons enjoy those benefits. It has given the people of Europe rights that would have been unimaginable in unhappier times. Reciprocal rights that allow us to work in other European countries on the same conditions as nationals, allows young people to travel with ease and study abroad, that mean we can shop with consumer protection, buy houses, retire and collect our pensions in the country of our choice and we get emergency medical treatment when needed.
We are free to live, work and travel across a beautiful continent with many fascinating and wonderfully diverse countries. Is it little wonder that eurosceptics are perceived as regressive if the positive side of this is rejected? It was once the case that it could be arduous travelling across Europe; it was a long trek across heavily policed borders with great points of tension between countries. It isn’t even that long since Europe was divided by the “Iron Curtain”; preventing Eastern and Western European peoples from mixing and cohabiting freely. Now we have the ability to cross these borders with minimal fuss like free human beings; it is clearly a good principle, a high ideal, and socially and economically beneficial.
Britain is an open and liberal country and long may this continue; it is the key to our economic, cultural and social dynamism. It is the key to victory in the referendum and a necessity for making a success of independence. We have flexible labour regulation and our employers are open to recruiting global talent. We are best placed to attract the best and brightest of the world because socially and economically the UK is an attractive place to live and work. We are a gateway to Europe and the world and have successful and growing creative, media, high tech, educational, financial and commercial sectors. There is no reason for this to be adversely effected by leaving the European Union and many reasons why independence will help us prosper further – but no one will believe that if the Leave campaign is perceived to be selling a regressive vision.
Make no mistake, if those who rail against free movement, and concentrate on immigration at the expense of all other major issues in this debate, are allowed to dominate the campaign; we will lose.
If they got their way there would be no more free movement to Britain (and a sudden end to Single Market access with the economic damage that brings), and reciprocally there would be no more free movement for Britons on the continent. Try selling that to the youth of this country. And don’t underestimate the paradoxical and, yes, hypocritical frustration many British citizens will feel at suddenly losing that freedom.
Migration to the UK will be less driven by the movement of human capital and more so by family reunification. We will have closed the door on students, entrepreneurs and grafters and restricted the freedom of our own people. We will take an economic hit but also a reputational hit. Will Britain seem such an attractive place for investment? Will international business want to set up, or remain, in a parochial Britain? Trade with Europe, our biggest market, will suffer from new controls on formerly routine border crossings after hastily leaving the Single Market and abolishing free movement. People want answers to these questions and uncertainties and they are not forthcoming.
We can thrive as an independent country but not if we immediately put up barriers, introduce a complex visa based system of immigration control and disrupt the labour market.
We have to offer a de-risked, economically secure Brexit, and we need a progressive and positive vision to win and succeed after leaving. That means pragmatism, that means compromise and it means retaining access to the Single Market and freedom of movement. It means embracing an outward looking, globalist Britain.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty