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How To Solve Free Movement Issue

06/08/2017 17:19

Here's a story you won't read in the press. EU citizens in the UK are going home. The number of EU workers arriving has gone down by 80% compared to the peak year of 2007. With the ugly anti-European atmosphere created by Brexit, Europeans working here feel less comfortable and sure of their welcome in Britain.

The BBC still insists on referring to the French, Spanish, Poles or Swedes living amongst us as "immigrants." That may be technically accurate but as the Guardian's media commentator, Roy Greenslade, noted the term "immigrant" is loaded.

Clive Lewis and David Lammy are two MPs who have spoken out in favour of maintaining free movement as a broad principle. This is also essential if the up to two million Brits who have retired to warmer regions of the EU or who simply live and work across the Channel are to keep the current rights to live and get the same medical and social security care as nationals of the countries where they have made a home.

Yet still many Labour MPs and trade union leaders seem bewitched by an obsession with immigration controls. Put simply: the UK cannot win or even keep inward investment based on Single Market membership - the most dynamic source of working class job creation - if we insist on immigration controls that discriminate against fellow Europeans. Weasel words like "access" or "partnership" are meaningless. Like being pregnant you are either in the single market or you are not.

However, the words 'single market' and 'immigration' were not on the referendum ballot paper. It is perfectly possible to "leave" and not be a member of the EU and still have open borders as is the case in Norway and Switzerland.

There seems to be an assumption that there is a magic policy called 'immigration controls' which can be enacted and hey presto! all the long-standing tensions that have existed about the presence of foreign-born residents in the UK will subside.

Yet setting up a cumbersome, expensive bureaucracy of Home Office jobsworths to decide who is let in and who is denied access will turn Britain into an even meaner, nastier country than it has become under Tory rule. The latest proposal from the Government's Migration Advisory Committee that only 18-30 year old should be allowed in post-Brexit is surreal. Farewell Arsene Wenger and most premier league managers. If such a measure were to be reciprocated by EU27 member states there will be a mass exodus of British ex-pats who don't meet the youth criterion!

Brexit most now agree was largely fought and won on immigration. It was a posthumous victory for Enoch Powell as the language he used against BAME immigrants in the 1960s and 1970 was identical to the line about European immigrants from Michael Howard, Theresa May and Nigel Farage this century.

That said the demand for a new approach so that the labour market is geared up to support fairly-paid jobs for British citizens is perfectly reasonable.

Labour or indeed a sensible government should set up a policy review to examine best practice in countries such as the Nordics, or Germany, the Netherlands or Switzerland where there are high levels of employment, and pay and working class purchasing power is better than the in UK.

Far better than quitting the single market is to argue for internal controls, by changing how the UK labour market is organised. Under EU rules, for example, no state agency is obliged to hire foreign workers. But successive health secretaries, including those under Labour, have failed to train enough British doctors, nurses and health care workers. The same is true for all craftworkers, such as electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters and shop-fitters.

Britain could exercise control by making apprenticeships compulsory for UK firms, as they are in Germany, Nordic nations and other countries where local workers do not feel as under threat as British workers do from European colleagues.

There already exists in EU law provisions for an emergency brake if too great a volume of Europeans arrives at too great a velocity and overwhelm local community public services. It is perfectly legal to require European citizens to return home if they have not found work after three months.

But that means we have to know who is here and who is at work - British or European. In Britain, the government hasn't the faintest idea. It was easy for Mrs May cheered on by Lib Dem MPs in the 2010 coalition to abolish an essential measure - a national ID card - that allows us to know who is in Britain legally. Other measures could include copying continental practice so that identity cards are needed to access health care and education. Strict enforcement of the EU Agency Workers and Posted Workers Directives would slow down the mass hiring by unscrupulous low-pay bosses of non-British workers. This is a way of controlling immigration by internal means, rather than quotas or crude blockages at frontiers.

Labour and trade unions can join with other sister parties in Europe to launch a campaign for a Fair and Free Movement EU Directive to insist that freedom of movement is not used to undercut existing wages and trade union agreements.

Simply repeating the mantra of "immigrant controls" is not enough. It is fairness at work that matters and that can be achieved without sending a signal that Britain is closed to Europeans.

Denis MacShane is the former UK Minister for Europe and author of Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won't Leave Europe published by IB Tauris.

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