By Simon Barnett, guest blogger
As a small child, so small I no longer remember the specifics of the question, I asked my father about immigration. While I can no longer recall the question, his answer will remain with me forever.
“Anyone who wants to come and work, pay taxes and raise their children is as British as you or I.”
And that small child grew up into the sort of person who knows the SECOND verse of the Marseilles. The sort who secretly listens to French pop music. The type of person who always has enough Euros in his wallet to grab a pack of Galois, an expresso and a copy of the IHT wherever he has ended up. And the where has included living and working across Europe and beyond. Therefore, the principle of free movement of workers – if not the implementation – is something for which I am passionate advocate.
Consequently, people are often surprised by my opposition to the EU. “But you love Europe”, they exclaim. “It will still be there after we leave the EU”, I respond.
Effectively there are two clubs that can play in the single market I explain. The European Union is the club for countries that plan to federate.
The European Free Trade Association is the trade bloc-alternative for European states who are unwilling to join the federation.
If we do not plan to federate I argue, we should be in the latter.
But that is not a declaration of enmity toward Europe. Far from it. It is simply an acceptance that the interests of a Federal Euro Zone are divergent from that of our own, and that it is in all party’s best interests to come to an amicable settlement whereby the UK switches EEA pillar to the non-federating club.
And as the debate progresses, the coherent thinking – on both sides – seems to be coalescing around that idea of a trade and co-operation relationship with Europe, based upon membership of the Single Market (EEA) through EFTA. Leave arrive at this argument via wanting more control without damaging the economy. Remain arrive at the same argument as a fall-back position; that a trade and co-operation relationship with Europe is far better than pulling up the drawbridge of fortress Britain entirely. The Civil Service arrive at the argument out of sheer pragmatism.
As a consequence of the growing popularity of the idea of EFTA/EEA membership, freedom of movement has suddenly become a sticking point. “How”, the EC communications staffers howl, “could you, in good conscience, accept the result of a plebiscite in which some leave votes were cast by people who oppose Freedom of movement, while hoping to remain in the EEA”? Similarly, any mention of compromise causes howls of derision from the small but vocal minority who will be unable to hear the arguments in this article over the dragging sound made by their knuckles.
So the following argument is addressed to neither minority. It is addressed to you, the majority of right thinking, hardworking British people – on both sides of the argument – who would have agreed with my father that anyone can be British; That being British is not a matter of ethnicity, nor creed, nor religion, but a matter of endeavour, liberty, tolerance and respect.
If you dream of living in a dystopian, homogenised, United States of Europe, or indeed if you want to rant about people from “bongo-bongo land”, please do not waste your time or mine by reading any further.
Hopefully some of you are still with me…
Up until now I’ve made it a point during the campaign not to discuss Freedom of movement. Partly this has been because my argument in favour of leaving the EU is entirely based on self-determination versus the slow drift towards federalisation and – to me at least – that is compelling enough not to require Malthusian arguments over social resources, or even the disputable financial cost (and opportunity cost) of membership.
But mainly my reluctance to address this issue has been because I find so many people are entirely unable to mentally disaggregate the arguments in favour of economic co-operation – that must include the pooling of human resources – from the entirely separate arguments against benefits tourism.
In the fog of the great European debate, “Freedom of Movement” has become synonymous with immigration. The caustic effect of this has been to conflate in people’s minds entirely valid concerns about abuses of undocumented workers, of companies using the benefits system to subsidise foreign employees, of human trafficking, of cross-border organised crime and, yes, of terrorism with the EEA requirement for Freedom of Movement. But freedom of movement is only one element of a host of issues surrounding immigration and – to my mind – one of the least concerning.
In reality there are four freedoms of movement. They are the movement of goods, capital, services, and workers. These are fundamentally economic rights, specifically with the purpose of facilitating cross border economic activity. They provide businesses with the right of establishment, to set up shop and employ people. The right to bring in expertise from one’s home country and beyond as required to develop and manage the business. The right to sell one’s products and services across national borders.
But the freedom of movement for workers is simply defined as the right to accept an offer of employment from an employer in another EEA member state. Whilst you might not believe it – given how widely the system has been abused – there is no right of movement for benefits claimants. In reality if migration were only permitted based on an offer of employment very few leavers would have a problem with it, even if the same deal were applied equally to immigrants from countries outside the EU, such as the nations of the Commonwealth. No points system required.
Another little publicised fact is that the rules of freedom of movement are actually slightly different for EFTA/EEA members than those for EU/EEA members. EFTA/EEA retain a unilateral emergency brake that allows them to suspend freedoms of movement if necessary, without first having to go cap-in-hand to ask for the permission of 27 other member states – as required by Call-Me-Dave’s so-called “renegotiation”. Even were we never to have an emergency that required it, knowing that we could pull that lever – should we ever need to – would go a long way to satisfying leavers legitimate concerns over uncontrolled migration.
Because I think most people understand and accept that, while utilisation of public services is increased by immigration, so too is the number of people paying into those services. Regardless of the minimum wage in their country of origin, someone who is paying tax at the UK rate, rent at the UK rate and expenses at the UK rate has every much as right to those public services as any other taxpayer.
At the same time people are rightly offended by the abuses they see in the system. The way it has been used, not to import expertise, but to fill low paid unskilled jobs with undocumented workers who can be intimidated into accepting sub-minimum wages. The way businesses who discriminate against their foreign workforce with un-liveable wages are subsided by the taxpayer making up their employees’ wages with benefits. The cynical exploitation by corporations. You are right to be angry about these things. But these are not failures in the economic principles of Freedom of Movement, but failures in how successive governments have implemented them.
Yes, our immigration system is in serious need of reform; The abuses. The unfair disadvantage it places on non-eu skilled workers. The legal challenges we face in deporting sexual / violent / organised criminals. These are complicated issues that, post-Brexit will need to be seriously considered.
But I believe that relieving ourselves of the twin burdens of the European Court of Justice and the chapter on European Fundamental Rights – whilst repatriating executive powers from the European Commission – will give us the best chance of creating a fairer, better and more beneficial – even if never quite perfect – immigration system; And I truly believe we can address many of the current problems in our immigration system from within the EEA framework of Free Movement.
We are under no obligation to hurry into any decisions as to how immigration policy can best serve the interests of the UK in the next five or even ten years. They are decisions that can be given full and proper consideration and be taken in consultation with the British public, if – and only if – the power to leave the EU and make such decisions on our own behalf is returned to the UK on 23rd June.
Because the question before the British people is membership of the European Union, not one of immigration. We can argue about which immigration policies will best serve the interests of UK PLC going forward, but to do so before those decisions are once more within our power to make is entirely moot.
Simon Barnett, Brexiteer