Five Ways in which Freedom of Movement can be to everyone’s benefit:
As a British EU ‘migrant’ or ‘expat’ (as we are more usually known on the continent), and as an economic historian specialising in migration studies, I believe that ‘immigration’ is the wrong word to use to describe the migration of people currently taking place within the EU and the EEA (European Economic Area). The voluntary movement of Labour within an internal market has long been a feature of successful economies, including Britain’s. To understand how migration works in practice, we need to look at the big picture, the ‘bird’s eye view’, as well as the experience of migration streams at a local level, the ‘worm’s eye view’. We also need to take a longer-term view of the social and economic causes and effects associated with it. Here are five ways, or key arguments, for developing the EU’s approach to ‘free movement’ into one which benefits all its member states and their subjects/ citizens:
1. A hundred years ago, the majority of the working population was concentrated in the industrial areas of Scotland, the North of England and South Wales. Some of these areas in 1911-1921 were continuing to attract labour from the then impoverished rural areas of the British Isles at a net in-migration rate second only to that of immigration into the United States. Some, like my own grandfather, also moved comparatively short distances from the depressed English countryside into growing engineering cities like Coventry. When the older industries which attracted these workers then went into decline, many of those who had migrated into the older industrial regions moved on to the light engineering centres of the Midlands and South-East of England. This included a mass migration of half a million coal-miners and their families from South Wales alone in the twenty years between the wars. Most of these workers fulfilled a need for their skills and capacity for hard manual work, adapted to their new environment, contributed to its culture and integrated well into their new neighbourhoods. Nevertheless, they brought pressures on schools and social services which both local and national governments would have had to address, even had the Blitz not made matters worse. From the 1950s, these internal migrants were added to by streams of international migrants from the Irish Republic, the Empire and Commonwealth, again bringing their own cultural traditions to integrate themselves into their new environment. Again, these were, economically, ‘internal migrants’ from within Britain’s traditional trading areas overseas who were actively invited and recruited to come to Britain. Since 1975, that trading area or ‘internal market’ has been determined largely by the decision taken by the British people in 1975, when the UK decided by 2:1 to remain within the European Economic Community.
2. The logic of joining a ‘free trade’ union has always been that it would lead on to ‘free movement’ not simply of goods, but of services and therefore of people as well. This basic economic ‘mechanism’ of free markets cannot be denied by economists and economic historians, but it can be managed by politicians. There is nothing to stop British politicians doing what the French leaders did in 2004. All they have to say is that they want to be able to channel the migration streams from both EU and non-EU countries to match demand, given that, like France, they have strong ties to the latter. The idea that the EU does not allow us to control our own borders and our own immigration policy is a myth, one which is convenient for many. Belonging to a single trading market does mean, in principle, that the British government accepts and upholds both the rights of people from elsewhere in that market to work in the UK and those of British people to work (and/or retire abroad). At the moment there are 1.2 million EU migrants who have moved to Britain since 2010, compared with 600,000 moving out, a rate of 2:1. This gives an average of net in-migration of a hundred thousand per year, which includes citizens of the Irish Republic (who have always enjoyed freedom of movement) and British subjects returning to the UK from other EU countries. It also includes students on courses and long-term placements. Last year, this number increased to 180,000, but, taking into account Irish citizens and British ‘returnees’ among this number, EU migrants must still have been more than matched by the number of longer-distance migrants coming to the UK to settle permanently from non-EU countries, in making up the total net in-migration of 330,000. Of course, people will remark that that represents the population of a city the size of Coventry or Newcastle added in the space of one year and that, wherever that increase comes from, it has to be better controlled. The politicians, whether in Brussels/ Strasbourg, or in Westminster, have to address the concerns of voters over the impact on housing, education, health and social services, but without pandering to prejudice and xenophobia. They have only just begun to do so, but it would be common sense to give them the chance to continue this task both within the UK and the EU as a whole.
3. The rights of EU migrants have to be understood as distinct from the rights of illegal immigrants to the EU from the Balkans and the Middle East, as well as from the very distinct rights of the Syrian Refugees. As asylum seekers, the latter have no right to work in the country giving them safe haven. In addition to these distinctions, we don’t know yet how many of the EU migrants are intending to settle in the UK permanently, but anecdotal evidence both from the UK and from Hungary tells me that, for home-loving Hungarians at least, they will be in a small minority. The majority of EU migrants, by contrast with those from further afield, are on temporary contracts and are intending to return when their contracts expire, many having done so already, to be replaced by others. I talked just recently with one such Hungarian couple who lived and worked in Stoke-on-Trent for seven years, but who returned to Hungary five years ago. Typically, Hungarians arrive in the UK often with jobs already to go to, or with clear intentions in finding employment through various agencies. They rarely claim ‘job-seeker’s allowance’ (unemployment benefit), at least not until they have paid into the National Insurance system, and then only for short periods. Nearly all make a net contribution in taxation as soon as they start working. In the future, they will not be able to claim either unemployment benefits or in-work tax relief for four years, as a result of David Cameron’s renegotiation. The Poles who are fruit-picking in Kent, the Hungarians in restaurants in London, and the doctors and nurses working in Bristol are all making up for shortages in local labour.
4. In terms of their impact on local services, evidence from recent studies in Kent also suggests that, while language problems have a temporary implication for schools, most EU children settle quickly into a fairly familiar system, and learn/ acquire English very quickly, so that they are not as ‘high impact’ as students from other continents and cultures who arrive illiterate in English. Once the EU migrant children have learnt the medium of their education and can access the curriculum, these ‘bright’ children, from traditional European school backgrounds, more often than not go on to gain better GCSE results than their British peers. Health services are funded differently, through taxation, in the UK than in other EU countries, where workers pay into a National Insurance scheme, but since most migrant workers in the UK are young and single, it is unlikely that they are making disproportionate demands compared with the ageing native population. Reciprocal agreements regarding health care between the UK and, for example, Hungary, pre-date the latter’s membership of the EU, so that expats are entitled to free health care whatever the length of their stay.
5. Far from being a drain on resources, EU migrants are major contributors to maintaining and extending economic growth in Britain. Indeed, politicians in their home countries frequently express their fears that the temporary loss of these young workers means, for them, a loss of skills, talents and revenues which are much in need back home. They have even put in place programmes designed to encourage people to return, but at present these are unable to outweigh the wage differentials which persist between western and central-eastern Europe. English teachers from Hungary are washing-up in London restaurants because, even at minimum wage rates, they can earn more in a forty-hour week in the kitchens than they can in their schools. It is the UK which is benefiting from EU migration, whereas the ‘donor’ countries are dealing with the negative impact, but progressive politicians seem unwilling to make this case in the face of populist scaremongers in UKIP and elsewhere. There is also a case which needs to be put for the EU to intervene to mitigate the negative effects of migration on both the donating and recipient member states. This case can, of course, only be put and acted upon by those states working together within the EU institutions. A Norway-style ‘EEA’ solution to the UK’s relationship with the EU would not allow greater controls on ‘free movement’, but would mean that it would lose its ability to be part of a wider solution.
Freedom of movement also includes many ‘freedoms from’ that we have begun to take for granted, like freedom from work permits and work visas, freedom from intrusive medical tests of immigrants, freedom from transit visas, freedom from unfair phone tariffs, freedom from border checks and outrageous currency exchange charges, etc. Perhaps most significantly, it encourages the cheaper and cleaner travel options which all Europeans have begun to benefit from.