The free movement of people is one of the EU’s most celebrated achievements. According to the December Eurobarometer survey, 81 percent of Europeans think free movement has benefitted the economy. Yet in Britain, free movement is often cited as one of the main reasons why people voted to leave the European Union.
Love it or hate it, free movement came to an end at 11pm on 31 December when the UK left the single market. To mark the occasion, New Europeans organised a 12-hour vigil for UK citizens, EU citizens, their friends and relations to mourn the loss of free movement.
Despite their ambivalence towards the right that EU membership gave them to work, live, study or retire anywhere in the EU, British people made good use of the opportunities offered by free movement. Some estimates put the number of British citizens currently resident in EU Member States as high as 1.3 million.
“The free movement of people is one of the EU’s most celebrated achievements. Yet in Britain, free movement is often cited as one of the main reasons why people voted to leave the European Union”
Free movement also meant that the UK had unfettered access to the European Single Market, including the freedom to trade, not just in goods but also in services. As 80 percent of the UK economy is made up of services, this was a valuable freedom, particularly for those working in the financial services sector.
Many of the shortcomings in the new EU-UK Trade agreement stem directly from the fact that the UK has decided unilaterally to end free movement. In fact, one might say that the connection between free movement and trade has been understated. Business is done by people, with people and on the whole, for people. The customer is sovereign and business has to adapt to client needs, including the need to move freely.
Margaret Thatcher was a supporter of free movement – in fact, she can rightly be seen as one of the founding mothers. It was she that recognised in 1987 that restricting free movement within the EU was creating a barrier to trade. She became a powerful advocate of the four freedoms, and the Single Market, which has those four freedoms as its foundation. It was only later, with the Maastricht Treaty that free movement came to be associated with citizenship.
Citizenship of an EU member state was a precondition for free movement rights within the EU. Moreover, free movement became a component of a new category of citizenship – EU citizenship – which also conferred the right to stand and vote in local elections in another EU Member State.
With free movement came the right to equal treatment. In the quarter-century following the Maastricht Treaty came into effect, the European Court of Justice made a number of key rulings clarifying what free movement was about and who it was for. The answer the Court repeatedly came up with, was that free movement is for people (as opposed to workers, even though workers are of course are people). People have lives outside their work, including a family life.
“Despite their ambivalence towards the right that EU membership gave them to work, live, study or retire anywhere in the EU, British people made good use of the opportunities offered by free movement”
Restricting family life came to be seen, and rightly so, as a barrier to freedom of movement. This had the logical though seemingly paradoxical consequence that third-country nationals could move to the UK if their partner was a non-British UK citizen (or British citizens returning to the UK after a period of residence in another EU Member State) whereas the non-EU partner of a British citizen resident in the UK could not. It also meant that child benefit could be paid out to an EU citizen working in the UK even if their child was being looked after outside Britain.
At first sight that appears anomalous, until it is remembered that in most cases the EU citizen is paying taxes in the UK and is simply being treated in the same way as a UK citizen would be. Both of these issues - to the extent that they were an embarrassment to the government - could have been resolved by changing UK immigration law to facilitate family reunification in the first instance or by reforming the child benefit system for all recipients (British or otherwise) in the second.
Instead, the issues were used to discredit the principle of freedom of movement, in an often specious manner that nevertheless went on to all intents and purposes unopposed. Equal treatment also meant equal access to the labour and housing markets. Without free movement rights, ensuring equal access remains a challenge. This remains the case even after the high take up of the UK Government’s Settled Status scheme, which is supposed to guarantee rights for EU citizens already in the UK. A Green Card for Europe would help.
The story of Europe, is not just a story about the clash of ideologies and nation-state rivalry, it is above a story about people. Before becoming such a political issue, freedom of movement was simply a natural part of the lives of all EU citizens, including those 65 million British citizens who have ceased to be so. Those who knew its value will mourn the passing of freedom of movement. Others may only start to realise what they have lost once it has gone.