All It Needs Is for Someone to Be Bold; Political Editor JONATHAN WALKER Asks Just What We Have Really Got against Freedom of Movement

The Journal (Newcastle, England), July 4, 2017 | Go to article overview

All It Needs Is for Someone to Be Bold; Political Editor JONATHAN WALKER Asks Just What We Have Really Got against Freedom of Movement


Byline: JONATHAN WALKER

THERE was an outcry last week when Prime Minister Theresa May set out the Government's plans for EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit.

Anyone who's been here for five years will be free to live and work here forever. They'll be eligible for benefits and access to services such as the NHS in the same way as a British citizen.

It provoked a hostile reaction. Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, said more "ambition, clarity and guarantees" were needed.

Keir Starmer, Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, called it an "inadequate and conditional offer".

The response seemed a little churlish to me. But there is one way these concerns might be resolved.

The United Kingdom could choose to retain freedom of movement - allowing EU nationals to stay here simply on the basis that they have an EU passport, just as they can now.

It's perfectly possible to do this, and to ensure UK students, workers and others have the chance to study and work in EU countries, even though we're quitting the European Union.

Switzerland does it. It is not a member of the European Union but signed an agreement with the EU allowing free movement in 1999.

It's been controversial, and the Swiss people voted for a proposal to curb freedom of movement in a referendum in 2014. But the issue was largely resolved after the Swiss Parliament voted for laws allowing employers to discriminate in favour of Swiss job applicants in regions with high levels of unemployment.

And Switzerland is not alone. Norway also has free movement with the European Union, despite not being a member, through an agreement called the European Economic Area.

We could negotiate a similar arrangement here. That's not to say it would be easy, but Brexit's not going to be easy whatever we do.

And an agreement which continued freedom of movement would actually be easier to negotiate than one that doesn't. For a start, it would end concern about the fate of EU residents already here, because they could continue to have the same rights as they do now.

So far, however, both major parties seem to oppose continuing freedom of movement, and are determined to press ahead with a hard Brexit instead.

The Conservative general election manifesto included a pledge to "establish an immigration policy that allows us to reduce and control the number of people who come to Britain from the European Union", which is another way of saying freedom of movement will end.

And Labour's manifesto setting out its plans for government stated: "Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union. …

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