EU Freedom of Movement: Is it really worth fighting for?

Commissioning letter: EU’s “freedom of movement” policy is grossly unfair, and violently discriminatory. It also threatens trade union rights. Looking at Lexit co-editor Xavier Buxton asks if a new, fairer, better regulated system is needed.

Xavier Buxton
26 September 2017

Some old frontier-posts have become historical curiosities, complete with tourist information.

This letter is part of a “Looking at Lexit” series, edited by myself and Julian Sayarer. Over the next 12 months, as Brexit themes emerge in the news agenda, we will respond by posting our respective “commissioning letters”. Julian makes a case for EU free movement here. These letters will be sent to relevant experts, inviting them to contribute. But this is open-commissioning : if you want to have a go at an answer, please PM me (@xjb20) or Julian (@juliansayarer) with your thoughts. We’ll read everything we receive and then edit and publish those pieces that really move the question forward.

My central question today is this: from an internationalist perspective, how serious are the problems with the EU’s “free movement” policies? And from a labour-rights perspective, should the left be campaigning for closer regulation of EU workers in the UK? What would a truly left-wing immigration policy look like? Is this policy possible within the EU?

“Free movement” has been one of the great benefits of EU membership, allowing young British people to explore the continent, study abroad and “fall in love”. No visas, no work permits, and, within the Schengen area, no passport checks. Indeed, in much of Europe, the borders, often unmanned and sometimes unmarked, have all but disappeared. The douanes that litter the frontiers of Western Europe have taken on the appearance of pillboxes, the relics of a darker and divided past. The British left has, on the whole, appreciated these freedoms and this peace, and defended them vigorously against the ceaseless calumnies of the tabloid press.

Starmer’s announcement in August, therefore, that Labour will seek restrictions on immigration while not ruling out single market membership, has angered many. Labour, they say, has capitulated to the xenophobic rhetoric of the right, and privileged the EU’s economic benefits over its social and cultural ones. Continued free movement, they argue, must be a cornerstone of any progressive government.

But should it? While the referendum airwaves were dominated by reactionary scaremongering and bigot-baiting, a few voices on the radical left – including Tariq Ali and Lindsey German – highlighted the iniquities of EU migration policy. “Fortress Europe”, activists argue, has condemned thousands to watery deaths in the Mediterranean, and millions more to a desperate North African purgatory. It has defied its international obligations by deporting Syrian asylum seekers to Turkey, accompanied by a six billion euro bung. Within the EU, “free movement” is hardly universal: not only for asylum-seekers but also for anyone without full citizenship, even those with “indefinite leave to remain”, those open borders are closed. The camps at Calais, Dunkirk and Grand-Synthe stand as a constant reminder that the “free movement of persons”, enshrined in the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, has never recognised the personhood of Europe’s former colonial subjects. If the left believes in free movement and wants to stay in the EU, what reforms must it demand at a continental level?

Some counter that immigration is a matter of national policy: the EU does not dictate how the UK treats non-EU migrants. What would a fair domestic immigration policy look like, then? True internationalism, Lexiteers argue, demands truly open borders, and free movement as a human right for all, not just for our relatively privileged neighbours. But if this sounds like fantasy in twenty-first century Britain, Labour’s 2017 election manifesto pledges might be a more realistic place to start. “Labour will develop and implement fair immigration rules.” How? “We will not discriminate between people of different races or creeds.” This is a basic liberal principle, but one that flies in the face of the European status quo, as even Vince Cable concedes. In plain terms: to preserve free movement for EU citizens without granting it to non-EU migrants is to “discriminate between people of different races”. Huge numbers of South Asian immigrants voted for Brexit for this very reason. If open borders are unimaginable and immigration is going to be limited for the foreseeable future, then a transparent points-based system is surely the fairest one we can hope for, giving equal opportunities to migrants from around the world.

It must be admitted that this last argument was taken up, duplicitously, by the far right, including Farage himself. And refusing free movement to Europeans, just because non-Europeans don’t have it, is rather like complaining about Scottish students not paying tuition fees. But even if free movement for Europeans is to be defended, as the first step towards a world without borders, the left must address other anxieties, closer to home.


Under-payment of posted workers sparked industrial disputes at Total’s Lindsey Oil Refinery in 2009, and Esso’s Fawley Oil Refinery in 2016 (pictured).

What is the effect of “free movement” upon the wages and living standards of UK workers? Corbyn has on occasion raised these issues: increased pressures on public services and housing in areas of rapid migration; the wholesale import of cheap European labour. Although economists have generally been quick to rubbish these concerns, both remain hugely compelling among “left-behind” working-class voters, and are generally regarded as key drivers of the Leave victory. Moreover, at a European level, trade unions are increasingly frustrated by inadequate regulations on “posted workers”: the ECJ has repeatedly ruled that foreign companies, employing foreign workers, do not need to pay the wages negotiated by trade unions in the country they are posted to. Corbynism seeks a renewal of sectoral bargaining: does “free movement” pose a threat to this? If so, what modifications might the left seek in order to safeguard labour rights?

At Conference, a large group of MPs and delegates, under the banner of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, are seeking a reversal of Starmer’s August position. But in this great international upheaval, fighting for continuity is not enough. Our current immigration system has plainly failed: if it’s broken, why not fix it?

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