With a historic vote looming on 23 June, Brits remain divided over whether the UK should stay in the EU. Some believe a ‘Brexit’ would cut through red tape clogging the British economy and give Westminster more control. Others insist our ties to Europe profoundly shape Britain’s workforce, trade and culture for the better. Here, an expert offers a perspective to reframe the debate and we crunch the numbers to help inform your view
“Whatever the outcome, free movement is not the problem”
Both sides of the EU debate have misrepresented the issue of free movement across the Eurozone, argues EU law and policy expert Charlotte O’Brien
The free movement of workers between member states is one of the EU’s fundamental principles. It’s also perhaps the most controversial component of the UK’s referendum debate, and arguably the most misrepresented.
Those on the ‘Brexit’ side, in favour of Britain leaving the EU, speak against the principle of free movement, suggesting that we need to stem the flow of people from EU member countries arriving to live and work in Britain. The theory goes that the UK cannot cope with current migratory flows from the EU, and that EU national workers threaten labour market stability and public finances, taking jobs away from Brits, and placing an undue burden on their public systems.
But those in favour of continued EU membership have not mounted a strong counter argument in favour of free movement. They have steered clear of this emotive topic, pointing instead to trade benefits. This appears to accept that free movement is a necessary evil; a concession made in exchange for the economic bounty that union membership provides.
The perception that the free movement of workers is a drain upon public resources, albeit one accepted in order to access other trade advantages, has gained traction. Successive government announcements have reinforced it, telling us that welfare changes made in 2014 and 2015 tackled ‘rogue’ EU benefit claims, and that migrants were taking advantage of or exploiting the system. And the European Commission itself has entrenched it, agreeing with British representatives that free movement to the UK puts “an excessive pressure on the proper functioning of its public services”, and that the current situation justifies a ‘benefit brake’.
Public services are under pressure, but this is likely to have more to do with austerity than the presence of Europeans
Both sides of the debate, and the EU institutions themselves, are feeding a fundamental misunderstanding. Here’s why: the free movement of workers is an economic dimension of the EU. The union was not set up as a charitable endeavour, whereby member states got their slice of trade pie by promising to sponsor hard-up non-nationals. Rather, in the free movement framework, workers are viewed instrumentally, as a way to promote economic integration and free trade. The rights of workers, such as equal treatment, were not social ends in themselves, they were the lubricant that ensured labour mobility. That is, people can – and willingly do – move where the work is.
The idea that we should be cherry picking and abandoning free movement of workers while maintaining the economic ties with the common market is flawed. Labour mobility serves the economic interests of the members of the union.
A range of studies, including by the European Commission and the UK government, which commissioned, then buried, its own Balance of Competences review, point to EU nationals being net contributors to the UK economy. The reports show EU nationals have a positive fiscal impact – possibly to a greater extent than UK citizens themselves, since EU nationals are less likely than UK citizens to be unemployed. A University College London study found that European Economic Area nationals contributed ten per cent more than native Brits to the economy, in relative terms, from 1995 to 2011.
Contrary to perceptions, free movement is not to blame for the UK’s woes. Public services are under pressure, but this is likely to have more to do with austerity than the presence of Europeans. Free movement is not a scheme based on altruism, and we flatter ourselves if we think otherwise.
Dr Charlotte O’Brien is a senior lecturer at York Law School. She specialises in EU social law, UK public law and EU policies on social security, migration, citizenship and asylum.
The EU in numbers
Infographic design by Studio Blackburn. Data compiled by Ben Whitford.