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Home Opinion We need to start talking about free movement before it is too late
Brexit • EU • Immigration

We need to start talking about free movement before it is too late

Thangam Debbonaire - 18 October 2016

Jettisoning the benefits we get from free movement will not remedy the grievances that led to the Brexit vote

The government hasn’t got a clue what to do about Brexit. There was no clear plan, and there still is no clear plan at the time of writing. Up until the Conservative party conference, the answer to every question was the same “Brexit means Brexit” and “we aren’t going to show our negotiating hand by giving a running commentary”. Both lines acted to cover up exactly what the government may or may not have been planning. 

Now, however, Theresa May has said she will be going for an early Brexit and that the free movement of people will have to be stopped. Amber Rudd went so far as to announce that she would consult on requiring companies to reveal the numbers of ‘foreign-born workers’ they employ.

The recklessness of the government’s abandonment of free movement is breathtaking. And to make such a decision – one which will have such serious and permanent consequences – without even discussing it in parliament, let alone putting it to a parliamentary vote, is surely bordering on negligent.

We are in danger of sleep walking towards a situation which will be catastrophic for the UK in general, and for us as individuals, on the basis of a vote characterised by the misleading and incomplete information surrounding it. And, as importantly, there has been very little meaningful, informed discussion about what free movement of people actually means.

Freedom of movement has been presented to the British people are something which is done to us, rather than something in which we too participate. But do we not also harbour dreams of retiring to Spain? Do you not want your son or daughter to be able to study as easily in Berlin as Birmingham? Then to take up a job in Denmark as easily as Devon? That’s all at risk when we give up on reciprocal movement of people.

First, it is important to remember that we’ve generally been misled about the reality of our current situation. At the moment there are border controls on entry into and out of the UK, we can deport criminals and keep out terrorists. We have control. We are not part of the Schengen agreement.

Second, we have acted as if nobody ever leaves the UK to study, live, work or retire elsewhere in the EU, even for a short time. Perhaps it is because those of us who have done any of these things have taken them for granted. Perhaps it is because there are still many people who feel shut out of those opportunities. They don’t feel this option as a benefit. But that’s a reason to develop economic opportunities, training and improvements in the lives of those people, not to forever shut them out of the opportunities that should be available to them, because of fears about migration.

Third, we are risking access to the European single market. The reality is that free movement is also tied up with the free movement of goods, capital and services and most importantly to the single market. This market is the single biggest market for our goods and services – the ways we make our living as a country.

There will be those who say that people who campaign for free movement are ignoring the will of the British people, who ‘voted leave because of immigration’. But there are all kinds of reasons why this might not reflect reality. Ukip’s vote is highest in areas with lowest migration, so it does not make sense to me that there is a direct link between a ‘leave’ vote and a genuine grievance with migration levels. We know that people are dissatisfied with lack of opportunity, with a feeling that they’re disconnected from politics. Jettisoning the benefits we get from free movement will not remedy those grievances.

When it comes to it, I know that people who voted against remaining in the EU did not vote against us being able to participate in high-quality research, or trade with our neighbours, or retire somewhere sunny. Let’s take the time to reflect on what we’re about to lose, before it’s taken away from us irrevocably.

Thangam Debbonaire is the UK Labour MP for Bristol West

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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