European freedom of movement is a class issue

The wealthy have lived globally for generations, but they don't want the rest of us to do the same


The debate over people’s right to move freely across our continent is the most powerful argument available to those who are trying to persuade people to vote to leave the EU.

The polling shows that this argument is more likely to move people to agree with the Leave camp than any other. But it is an argument that sounds rather hollow coming from the mouths of the elites who are central to the Brexit campaign.

The wealthy have lived global lives for generations: what they are uncomfortable about is the rest of us having the ability to do the same. An important piece of evidence here is the £35,000 minimum earnings threshold that non-EU nationals are now required to earn if they have spent more than five years working in the UK.

This policy, currently being implemented by the Home Office, is a clear indication of discrimination: the rich are free to move where they wish and live where they choose; those on average incomes are not.

Sian Berry, Green mayoral candidate and now a member of the London assembly, cited ONS data showing there are more than 100,000 couples living in London where one is British and the partner is from another EU country. 

When they fell in love this didn’t matter; after 23 June it might matter a great deal as it is clear that restricting freedom of movement will be meaningless if it does not include restricting the right of spouses to join their partners in the UK.

However, the debate about freedom of movement has tended to focus more on the issue of where you choose to work rather than who you choose to love. Last week yet another report, this time from the London School of Economics, concluded that there is no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs or wages.

Nonetheless, it is understandable that those in less skilled jobs are feeling the pressure and I believe this is an area where European politicians need to consider how best to ameliorate the consequences of free movement.

It impacts not only on workers in countries that attract migrants but also on the societies that lose their younger and more dynamic citizens who leave in search of better wages abroad.

Following a vote to remain, regulating the single employment market in a way that works for all European countries, must be a priority. This will help ensure continued popular support for freedom of movement.

The insecurity felt by some British workers is being ruthlessly exploited by Brexiteers. Those of us who support remaining in the EU need to make the case that low skilled workers would be leaping out of the free movement frying pan into the deregulated labour market fire if we were to leave the EU.

They gain far more from EU legislation protecting their rights at work than they lose from competition with inward migration. As the TUC have said, a complete withdrawal from the single market could pave the way for sweeping changes to employment law, but even remaining part of the single market but outside the EU could remove rights to discrimination compensations and protections for agency workers, for example. 

It is no surprise that Digby Jones, former CBI boss and now Brexit campaigner, has long argued that British workers should compete with their Chinese counterparts. What he calls ‘mindless red tape’ I call workers’ rights. 

But in the world according to Digby, capital would be free to flow towards the labour market with the lowest wages and worst conditions, but workers would be restricted from moving to improve their situation.

To some extent this argument has demonstrated a fundamental division among the global capitalist elite. While many share Digby Jones’s view, others are happy to welcome Eastern European migrants and exploit them in our own labour market.

A popular question for pundits observing the referendum debate is whether it is the economic or the migration argument that is more powerful. The reality is that these arguments cannot be separated and, while as Greens we celebrate free movement, we need to ensure that it benefits everybody in our European society.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England

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