For the previous eight months I have predominantly lived and worked in Poland, and I am writing this post from Białowieża, Europe's only remaining primeval forest on the eastern border of democratic Europe. It is the most wonderful place, full of birds and beasts rarely seen in the wild elsewhere. A sea of colours in spring, of greens in the summer, and in autumn a cascade of red and browns. In winter the treetops cover with snow and it is the kind of place I thought only existed in the books of my childhood. My wife's family are from this region, and I visit for weeks throughout the year, and I was married in the Orthodox Church, built by Tsar Nicholas II, which sits on the border between Białowieża village and the forest.
When I was growing up in England, I would never have imagined where I am today. For this, I can thank only the policy of freedom of movement, a founding principle of the European Union. It is a policy that since the victory for Brexit in the EU referendum has come under sustained attack. It has, at worst, been described as the potential cause for the breakup of Europe, and at best a bargaining chip, a necessary evil in order to secure access to a free trade area. Far from being a negative and destructive policy, freedom of movement is Europe's greatest achievement, its most hopeful idea, and the policy that provides incredible opportunities to all.
Freedom of movement is not just about the rights of European citizens to come to Britain, but the rights of everyone, young and old, rich and poor, to open up your horizons and explore beyond the borders of your home country. In being European, as well as British, we get to share a whole continent, and British citizens have untold opportunities to study, work or retire anywhere they desire in Europe. Never in the history of our tiny island have such liberties been present, and to throw them away would be an act of national self-harm that we will long regret.
A growing and successful economy creates jobs and if these jobs cannot be filled then immigrants are required. The demand for immigrants is inevitable in an ageing population, and it is highly likely that immigration will have to increase to Britain over the coming decades in order to maximise economic growth. Suppressing immigration will put a limit on the capacity of many industries and will see the British economy shrink. Further, trying to manage immigration through an Australian Style Points System is a big mistake. This policy assumes that bureaucrats in the home office will know better than business managers and owners where labour shortages are rising. The policy will be slow to react to trends in the economy and rely on the sort of central planning that failed millions across Eastern Europe for five decades. The immigration points system in operation in Australia is so dysfunctional that it has failed to even control the numbers entering the country. Today Australia has over 5 million immigrants, an equivalent of about one quarter of the population (source: Parliament of Australia).
It is also highly misleading to state that migration reduces wages. In the years 2004-2008, following the start of large scale EU migration to the UK, average real wage growth was identical to the years 2000-2004 prior to former Warsaw Pact countries joining the EU, suggesting strongly that there is little correlation between immigration and wage reduction. Even for the lowest earners, real wage growth in recent years has increased significantly in comparison to the early 2000s (source: National Bureau of Statistics). The introduction of a living wage before the end of the current parliament is likely to further increase growth.
And the immigrants, who come to Britain, far from the scroungers and criminals of the popular press, are predominantly hard working young families keen to share in the same European dream of integration and harmony that I have. Immigrants bring optimism, new ideas, and a glimpse into other cultures, making us a richer and more interesting society. Immigrants pay more in tax than is received in services (Source: University College London) and failures to provide adequate schooling and healthcare is a result of poor governmental spending of taxes rather than the fault of too large a population.
It is also a popular myth that immigrants to the UK receive special and preferential treatment, such as translators at hospitals. These are not special treatments but common courtesies provided to people who are prepared to come and work in and for Britain. Such treatment is definitely given to fellow EU citizens in Poland. When my daughter was born, we were provided with an English-speaking midwife and doctor. Translations of official documentations are provided upon request, and we will receive, following the launch of the 500plus program, child support payments that will be one of the most generous in Europe. I have never encountered any hostility either in the street or at work from people resentful of European immigration. On the contrary, people seem proud and happy that you have chosen their country as a home.
My life would certainly have been less happy, less fun and less adventurous without Freedom of Movement, and I am sure I speak for countless other Brits across Europe or those who have returned from Europe. Freedom of movement is freedom from the conventional, freedom to follow your dreams, and freedom to experience a whole new culture and way of life. If we end freedom of movement, the schoolchild who wants to study in Pairs, or the graduate who wants to accept a job in Frankfurt, or the couple who want to retire to the Algarve sun, will have their hopes denied, and their horizons narrowed. Politics should be about expanding people's liberties, setting them free. The story of Britain has been the slow but steady struggle to obtain these rights. Ending freedom of movement would be a vicious plot twist.