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.

  • Steve Gwynne

    Finally someone who appreciates that the freedoms are in essence economic and are to achieve greater competitiveness within the internal market. However your analysis shows little economic understanding of the free market since greater supply will have the effect of reducing or stagnating wages especially for the ‘low’ skilled and this has undoubtedly been the case in the UK for the last decade as well as stagnating standards of living. Hence the far right backlash. Similarly tax receipts have stagnated and so national debt has been steadily increasing.

    Austerity is an EU (neoliberal) economic policy
    and is sourced to
    1. ongoing budget deficit reductions in order to achieve a budget surplus (austerity)(TFEU Art 126)
    2. the restructuring of public revenue and spending (public service cutbacks)(TFEU para 30 Declaration on article 126)

    The UK has one of the highest budget deficits in the EU which points to the fact that free movement does not pay its way especially as services are used by non tax paying low income EU migrants and their non-working families.

    Migration always causes infrastructural lag and if tax receipts are not adequate, as they obviously are not, then the infrastructural lag persists. Hence more cutbacks and more austerity. As such low income migration is a negative feedback loop.

    Your arguments that migrants are a net contributor does not adequately provide evidence of wages in relation to the higher cost of services in this country and your analysis fails to explain that a net contribution here means a loss in the country of origin, hence economic stagnation across Europe and high levels of youth employment across Europe. Similarly you fail to mention the brain drain that free movement of labour inevitably causes as well as increased competition in the destination country which adds to community and economic tensions.

    Lastly EU economic policy does not allow for derogation so all elected political parties must conform to it hence no liberty, equality or democracy for elected political parties to respond to its citizens hence more far right politics.

    Overall EU economic policy including free movement may benefit the UK as resources including human are over concentrated which may benefit corporate shareholders or business owners but the list of negatives goes far beyond the economic.
    1. Downward pressure on wages and standards of living.
    2. Reduced tax receipts due to low income migrants but still using services.
    3. Budget deficit implications which deepens austerity and cutbacks with the junior doctors the most recent target.
    4. Increased competition and increased tensions in the workplace.
    5. Greater casualisation of work contracts to take advantage of increased supply of labour.
    6. Reduced community cohesion, rents increasing, more demand on services.
    7. Brain drain and reduced tax receipts in country of origin. Reducing demand and then reducing supply of jobs leading to reduced GDP in country of origin.
    8. More EU taxes and contributions to pay for Social Fund, Redevelopment Fund and Cohesion Fund.
    9. No possibility of national economic democracy.
    10. Politicisation of losers of EU economic policy and the rise of the far right.

    In conclusion freedom of movement is a bad idea and needs to be replaced with fair movement of labour.

  • Tim Duthie

    Steve, out of genuine interest, how would you model a fair movement of labour to deal with the problems you outline?

  • Steve Gwynne

    Hi Tim. I would say that a more consentual (as opposed to free market) approach is required whereby citizens of different countries (such as within Europe) make these sorts of decisions collectively in terms of mutual appreciation. Therefore, fair for me implies a conscious negotiation (or a conscious mediation) between the social, economic and environmental needs of different countries. In this respect I think cooperation is the best/right way to proceed in terms of encouraging and facilitating international development as well as facilitating the progressive expansion of our territory based identities from the local to the global. For myself, I think the ethic of competition that underlies freedom of movement models not only thwarts positive identity flows but also thwarts meaningful trading relationships since competition relies specifically on specialisation which inherently forces weaker countries to restructure their economies to provide for the needs of stronger countries which reduces diversity and so resilience for both economies in the long term as a result of facilitating co-dependant relationships. In this respect I believe there is good interdependancy which is promoted by fair trade of labour etc and bad interdependancy which is promoted by free trade of labour etc. Both result in trade but the latter tends to impoverish social, economic and environmental relations whilst the former tends to facilitate mutual prosperity especially if models of fairness are applied within countries as well as between countries.

  • Steve Gwynne

    The main problem with the EU economic policy of creating a highly competitive social market economy (TEU Article 3) for the UK (and indeed other developed EU nations) is the infrastructural lag that is created due to excessive migration and the catch 22 that you need more migration to service the needs and the demands of economic migration (hence staying in the EU will create more (migrant) jobs rhetoric).

    This might look good for GDP (which is conveniently spun as per capita gains) but in reality spells disaster for reducing budget deficits and national debt especially if much of EU economic migration is minimum waged labour (which it is).

    Of course, the middle and upper (corporate/political) classes don’t give a hoot about infrastructural lag, austerity or public service spending cutbacks since they primarily rely on private services. And so nor do they give a damn about the casualisation of labour in the form of zero hour contracts and the proliferation of agency work, nor do they give a damn about foodbanks, homelessness and excessive housing demand, all of which are directly related to the consequences of excessive surplus labour due to EU economic policy.

    Basically we have an EU economic policy that is out of social control. Hence the rise of far right leaning parties right across Europe.

    Therefore, the most critical question that arises is how do Bremainers propose to resolve the underlying economic crisis that is being created by EU economic policy despite the so-called benefits of increasing GDP and the associated expansion of the UK economy.

  • This is a great article. Thank you so much!

  • Pat

    Steve Gwynne’s closer to the mark. Charlotte’s correct to say that “Free movement is not a scheme based on altruism” – too true: it’s based on global businesses’ needs: i.e. cheap ‘flexible’ labour. The same mega businesses are holding the pens of those EU apparatchiks cooking up the Transatlantic Trade and Investment partnership (TTIP) rules behind very closed doors (according to Private Eye #1417, p.1, even most MEPs don’t know what they contain, and anyone who requests democratic access, gets it one at a time, sworn to secrecy). The EU is passionate for privatization, and TTIP will help deliver this to giant corporations either side of the Atlantic. Some even think that TTIP will legally prevent all re-nationalisation, if say the monetizable bits of the NHS are sold to private healthcare firms and then the error of doing that is realized by a more enlightened future government.

    The losers from the EU are the working class whose jobs have migrated in millions to China or for whom the rapidly diminishing number of jobs left in manufacturing in the UK are now being done increasingly by EU migrants. Yes, the (wealthy of) the UK have benefited as the stats show; but the less well off have seen their culture, identity and job prospects disappear in two generations. Hence the rise of UKIP, now supported increasingly by ‘Old Labour’.

    To be more positive, I do believe in a united Europe. I’m as British as tea and scones, but see myself as culturally European and not American or Asian, the two other big pulls on the UK’s allegiances. But the EU at present is too dominated by mega businesses (hence the creation and continuation of the Luxembourg tax fiddle) and anti-nationalisation and even anti-mutualisation. This is what worries Corbyn and I hope that if he or his successor comes to power soon, they will ally themselves with other European parties with the same suspicions and properly democratise the EU. If that happens, I would fully support the EU right up to the creation of a single United States of Europe. Until that democracy is assured, my support for the EU will be very tepid, although I will probably vote Remain.

  • Tim Duthie

    Hi Steve, thanks for your reply. A like the idea of a consentual approach based on democracy and in line with the circumstances and needs on the ground of each country and with respect to the other countries workers would come from. If this were executed it would need be at a regional level, eg at a county level, would it not? As different areas experience different needs and pressures. If that were the case then year by year residents within each county would vote on who can come in and how many. The national figure would then be a total of all the counties. I can see potential administrative pitfalls and inefficiency in this, but that would be truly consentual and born out of a democratic perception of need in each community would it not? The problem with it is propoganda swaying people based on exaggeration and prejudice, but I guess we have that anyway. Is there a more developed approach you have in mind?

  • Brendan

    Hi Steve
    Thanks for your comment I agree with you and I like the way you think. My gripe with all this and the considered article above is that the EU is printing more than a Trillion Euros per annum. We are printing £90billion + the US approx $1.5Trillion and the Japanese approx the same. We nearly doubled the size of our (UK) economy in a little over 8 years whilst Rover closed along with thousands of British firms making things and we replaced them all, plus a load more, with Estate Agents, Shops, Restaurants and Building firms. None of which make Britain any money. The maintenance of which requires a continued level of borrowing pre 2008 which is impossible.
    Post 2008 we are beginning the descent from the greatest credit boom that has ever happened. No one is even remotely interested in talking about this. We did not take a million Poles and 4 million others on the back of our 1998 economy, we took them on the back of a credit binge of monumental proportions that pushed house prices to dizzying heights. And NO ONE ASKED HOW
    I will probably vote out. We now face a level of debt that will surely end in hyper inflation as our great ‘leaders’ print ever greater sums,both in Europe and in the US. Japan is in even worse debt.
    I am unsure if being out is better than facing all this ‘with’ the Germans. The French economy is in the same state as ours, as is Italy, Spain and the others including Greece who, poor people, were simply the first to topple. Watch France and Italy. They are close to breaking point and I don’t see Germany being very nice when its not 380 bn Euros but rather 3 Trillion Euros which France will never pay back.
    The figures above in the article assume our economy can maintain current spending levels, which I think is simply impossible
    Sorry to be a downer
    I believe as I think you do, that these new people are a true asset, bringing ideas and hard work to us when we need it. I also believe that our small island cannot take a limitless number and we should all talk together and decide what that number is

  • Steve Gwynne

    Hi Tim. I must admit as I was writing the above then I felt large parts of the infrastructure is already in place via job centres and most businesses have a planned forecast in terms of expansion or deflation. So I imagine there is a way of setting priorities based on sustainability and quality of life indicators in relation to the carrying capacities of housing, available land, health services etc and levels of national/regional debt or credit and anticipated tax receipts which can then all be presented for consultation and then a vote on a regional basis including anticipated changes in council tax to accommodate various options. Admittedly it is all quite managerial but this is no different to extremely high levels of managerialism that are currently in place to assess the competitiveness of our various services in relation to EU competition regulations around tendering public services contracts.

    Yes propaganda is unavoidable whikst we still have ideologically driven politics in my opinion. A policy centred independant approach might alleviate that somewhat.

  • Steve Gwynne

    My main worry is the complete lack of economic democracy in that every elected party must conform to treaty based economic policy. This highly centralised dogma does not allow any country to respond to its own needs and hence becomes perfect for corporate corruption. Apart from political/corporate elites I cant see why anyone would choose this fir themselves. I am most certainly Brexit.

    Similarly it is an absolute joke that Cameron et al bang on about the economic benefits of the EU. For who. Our country has been in severe debt since the Maastricht Treaty and national debt is increasing not decreasing. EU membership is causing widespread economic turmoil and whilst leaving might be seen as deserting a sinking ship it will be the only realistic way of activitating an actual rather than hoped for reforming of the EU before it does anymore damage. This is really ironic considering Cameron deluded speech about the EU being a pillar of strength and stability since in my opinion Britain is being called to action to save Europe from itself yet again.

    “Not for nothing did a bemused Mikhail Gorbachev – and as the man who presided over the dissolution of Russia’s “evil empire” he should surely know – say that the most puzzling development in Europe over the past decade was the determination of the EU’s leaders to reconstruct the Soviet Union, a failed state if there ever was one, on the soil of western Europe.”

  • BF

    Some of these statistics are wrong or misleading. E.g. the diagram says at least 2.2m British nationals live in other EU countries, and 2.5% of them (i.e. 55,000+) claim unemployment benefit. Yet it also says only 30,000 claim unemployment benefit. Also statistics like ‘CO2 emissions have dropped 82% in diesel and 63% in petrol cars as a result of EU legislation’ is misleading, as we don’t know what the drop would have been without EU legislation; the vague implication is that it would have been 0%. But perhaps emissions would have dropped even further, for example if the UK had passed its own more restrictive legislation than the EU’s. (And if the UK wouldn’t have done that, isn’t it our democratic right to pass whatever laws we want?)