Why I care about freedom of movement in Europe

160 days until our EU citizenship and freedom of movement turn i

Note (1st October 2019): The post below was written in April.  Today at the Conservative party conference, Home Secretary Priti Patel smirked while she declaring she will “end the free movement of people forever” as if that were driving a stake through a vampire’s heart. The Labour party, on the other hand, has made some progress, the party conference voting overwhelmingly to support free movement; yet Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott makes clear that the leadership doesn’t feel bound by that – so, despite the appearance of progress, my plague-on-both-your-houses must stand.

The original post: It pains me to see the leadership of the UK Labour Party doubling down on its opposition to continued freedom of movement between the UK and the other 27 countries of the EU. A few impressions:

Westminster politicians don’t understand this issue, because they are typically more inward-looking, less international, than their constituents. British political careers famously begin at university and of course continue within the UK, with the MP being somebody who has devoted years to getting the support first of party members and then of voters, almost all of them UK citizens. The upper levels of the civil service are likewise extremely British. Contrast that with work in most sectors of business, education, or the health service, where an international cast of both co-workers and customers/clients/students/patients is the norm, and where careers often include opportunities for work abroad. My guess is that, relative to other Britons of the same age and education, most Westminster politicians, whatever the party, don’t have a clue of the extent to which freedom of movement within Europe has become a part of the lives – and the identity – of many of their constituents.

The university where I teach, a mile and a half from the Palace of Westminster, might as well be on a different planet.

Birkbeck is the night school of the University of London. Our students mostly have full time jobs – in the City, in hotels, in the arts, in restaurants, with local authorities, with the NHS, you name it. And they are from everywhere, including a great many from EU 27 countries. A story I have heard many times – how many times? too many to recall – is more or less this: “I came to London meaning to be here for two months, studying English. But I was offered a job [and/or met my partner], so I stayed. Now I’ve been here for two years, and don’t know how long I’ll be here, and it’s high time I did a degree.” Notice, that is not the profile of a person who would gain entry to this country with a work visa, recruited for a job that the employer had failed to fill through local recruitment: these, my students, are people the leaders of both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party want to keep out of the country. I have known many hundreds of students with that story in my twenty two years at Birkbeck. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Britain would be a much poorer place without them.

I too am an immigrant. And I have immigrants at home: my wife is an Italian national, my son was born in Italy. You might ask, “is Brexit really hurting any of you?” There are three answers to that: immediate practicalities, long term practicalities, and the sense of not being wanted.

For us, the short term practicalities are not an issue, because my wife has been in continuous full time academic employment here for quite a while, so the government has her life on its computers and settled status came through instantly; we don’t expect a problem for our son.

In the longer term there’s a lot of uncertainty, options we had which we can’t now be sure of: retirement options (what will happen to health coverage and indexation of the state pension if we go to Italy?), family unification questions (moving to care for an ill/aged relative, or having them come here), our son’s future mobility (live outside the UK for too long, and you can lose Settled Status), and so on.

The sense of not being wanted? That’s fundamental. It’s what will probably drive us away. Not due to bad treatment any of us has suffered personally, but a feeling about what the place has become. To which you might well say that Britain is more open and less bigoted than America or Italy today, and that may be true – but, when things become hostile for foreigners, it’s easier not to be the foreigner.

Like the Birkbeck students I mentioned, my wife would not be in the UK without the Single Market, and its guarantee of free movement to work and study within the EU. Before getting a permanent job here and settling, she was back and forth for years between Italy and England (and, yes, Brussels): in England to study English when just out of school; splitting her PhD studies between an Italian university and a UK one; later a Marie Curie fellowship (EU funded) at another UK university; then teaching one term per year at still another UK university while holding down another job in Italy – all before being offered a job, at another uni here, that made a permanent move worthwhile. This sequence of back and forth, one foot in one country and one in another, would never have happened had a work permit been required for every job she took here. She’s now a professor, former head of department and governor at a leading British university. Under the policies now proposed by both the Tories and Labour, her career would not have happened.

Is ending freedom of movement necessary to protect jobs or wages? I study labor [forgive the Yankee spelling – that’s me] markets, it’s part of what I do for a living. So where do I start?

First, ending freedom of movement within Europe doesn’t end immigration. There’s no free movement into the USA, but there’s plenty of immigration – ask Donald Trump. There’s plenty of immigration to the UK from countries outside the EU 27, much of it without legal permission. Workers who don’t have a legal right to work here are more vulnerable to exploitation – low wages; cash-in-hand work which avoids taxes and social insurance contributions; long hours; dangerous working conditions; bullying and sexual harassment – because they dare not stand up for their rights. All indications are that reduced EU 27 immigration is just replaced by immigration from other countries, including many people without the right to work: ending freedom of movement from the EU will just make this problem worse.

Second, workers in the UK, whether or not they are immigrants, have fewer rights than they used to have, and fewer rights than in many other European countries, and as a result have lower wages and worse working conditions than they would otherwise have. Restrictions on the right to act collectively through trade unions; poor protection for “self-employed” contract workers and for those on zero hours contracts; prohibitively high legal costs for taking a grievance against an employer to a tribunal. These are choices of the UK government, not Brussels; they could be reversed by the UK government.

And, finally, the UK has a skills problem, a failure to train or educate enough people (or enough people who were born in Britain) in skills like plumbing or medicine or economics. There are other countries in Europe, no richer than Britain, which have managed this much better. Again, don’t blame Brussels. And, while you can probably make do without foreign economists like myself, you will probably not want to do without foreign doctors, nurses or plumbers anytime in the near future. If you don’t want foreigners in those roles, get a government which will come to grips with the question of why, however many people take degrees, you keep getting shortages of people with vital skills (this is not as easy as it may sound, since the UK’s constitutional order – the short-term perspective imposed by the combination of an extremely centralized government and a first-past-the-post voting system – bakes in the skills problem: every UK government since the 1970s has tried and failed to solve it; ask me about that some other time).

That’s my professional opinion.

But what drives me to write this is personal. I have always identified with Labour. I was an odd California child in this respect, brought up to revere the socialist and social democratic traditions of certain European countries, and the magic of the NHS and the BBC, alongside the labor unions and New Deal institutions of my own country. And I live here now, having in my mind become a European, with a son who was born with freedom of movement, and these politicians in Westminster are bargaining that all away. It is hard to explain the level of anger this brings up in me. So I’ll stop here, rather than letting this trail off into a string of curses directed at certain people who should know better. But I think that they know who they are, and that you do, too.

3 thoughts on “Why I care about freedom of movement in Europe

  1. Eloquent, devastating and true. It’s personal for me too. As another US immigrant of many years–now a British Citizen with dual nationality, I too came to England–in the 60s in my case to study– with great admiration for its post war progressive traditions. My son, born here, and his family are in London. Both my husbands have been British. I too cannot comprehend the lack of understanding in government and in Labour for the importance of freedom of movement, pragmatically (economically), socially, culturally. I view with complete dismay what a broad based ‘hostile environment’, stoked by government, right wing press and yes abetted by Labour–I am a Labour Party member– has done to alienate residents from elsewhere–not just of course the EU. I too am an academic, now retired, and saw my best PhD student ever, who became a brilliant teacher, return to her native Germany which she had left years ago, with her English husband and two children after the Referendum. There are many like her–we are not only losing essential skills that our country needs, but the international outlook essential today to the health any modern society.


    • Dear Cora,

      How nice to see your name pop up here! Sea Changes was my first encounter with feminist criticism as a callow young Cambridge graduate of the late 70s generation who had never been exposed to such ideas, and my heavily annotated copy is still on my bookshelf (I just pulled it down to remind myself!).

      (Sorry Frederick – that’s rude of me to hijack your site for a message to someone else. I’ve only just discovered the site and agree thoroughly with your analysis of Brexit, Putin and climate change. So dammed scary).

      Nick Till
      University of Sussex


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