Reform, not withdrawal, is the way to address public concerns about European free movement

The Ukip analysis of free movement should be challenged much more robustly than it has been to date, argues Alex Glennie.

The Ukip analysis of free movement should be challenged more robustly than it has been to date, argues Alex Glennie

Ukip has seized the headlines with its controversial posters suggesting that millions of unemployed European workers are coming to take British jobs, and calls to pull out of the EU in order to put an end to unrestricted European immigration to the UK.

Pressure groups and MPs from across the political spectrum have been quick to call out UKIP for their ‘racist tactics’, while others have highlighted the irony of using a European migrant to front a campaign advocating an end to free movement.

Yet apart from Nick Clegg’s game attempts in the recent European debates, very few have been willing to engage head on with Nigel Farage’s basic argument – that European migration has been bad for Britain, and that the potentially negative economic consequences of withdrawal from the EU would be a price worth paying if it would restore full national control over our borders. 

The most recent polls show that large numbers of the public agree with this sentiment, and that Ukip’s negative and chaotic campaign strategy is unlikely to dent their lead in the European elections. In a new IPPR report, we argue that this analysis of free movement should be challenged much more robustly than it has been to date.

The fact that every European citizen has the right to move around the EU for work, study or lifestyle is one of the EU’s most significant achievements. Over the past few decades, free movement has improved the efficiency of European labour markets, created opportunities for cultural and educational exchange, and allowed people to permanently relocate to another country for family reasons or for retirement. It has been good for the UK, filling skills shortages in key industries, and supporting jobs and exports estimated to be worth more than £200 billion to the British economy.

However, there is certainly scope for making free movement work more fairly for all – not just for those who move, but also for the communities that receive them.

In the UK, there needs to be a concerted effort to address the legitimate worries that people have about European migration – in particular around its impact on public services and infrastructure – in a way that does not stoke prejudice or further reduce trust in the government’s ability to manage migration effectively.

This involves more than simply limiting EU migrants’ access to welfare benefits, which will do little to reduce the numbers who move or support their ability to integrate effectively after they arrive. It also means developing a more coherent platform for reform at the European level. The government has made clear its goal of renegotiating the way that free movement currently works.

Suggestions for doing so include requiring any state that joins the EU in future to reach a certain level of GDP before controls on free movement would be lifted, or allowing member states to impose an annual ‘cap’ on European immigration if inflows reached a certain number in a single year.

In our view, neither of these suggestions adequately address current concerns – the former because it will have no impact on European migration flows for well over a decade, and the latter because it would essentially put an end to free movement. They are also unlikely to gain the cross-European support required for fundamental treaty change, even from countries that are generally sympathetic to the UK’s position.

Instead, the UK should be arguing for reforms which make the system fairer – such as increasing the length of time that countries of origin are responsible for covering the social assistance needs of their own citizens, and establishing clearer criteria and processes for the return of those migrants who are unable to support themselves in a sustainable way.

Sensible and modest reforms such as these would signal European commitment to enabling the migration of those best able to integrate and contribute, and making free movement work well for everyone.

These views may not get much of a hearing in the next few weeks. But after the dust has settled from the European elections, politicians who want a more constructive debate about Britain’s future relationship with Europe need to seriously engage with the free movement question.

Without an alternative positive vision of reform, support for Ukip’s agenda will only increase.

Alex Glennie is a senior research fellow at IPPR

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