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Vince Cable is right - liberals should back an end to EU free movement

There are limits to the Cosmopolitan Ukip approach. 

The Liberal Democrat veteran Vince Cable is right that free movement is not going to be politically viable after Brexit. Few people have stauncher credentials than Cable as an economic, social and cultural pro-migration liberal, and he makes a strong case for his liberal tribe rising to the democratic political challenge that the referendum result presents.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn sounds somewhat conflicted over whether he should move on from free movement or continue to support it. This shift in itself, though, shows increasingly that politicians who feel immigration benefits our society, nevertheless understand the post-referendum challenge of rebuilding public confidence in how it's managed. 

The Brexit vote was about more than immigration - but the Leave majority vote undoubtedly represented a vote of no confidence in how governments have handled immigration over the last fifteen years. So the core question for those who believe that Britain benefits from migration is how to rebuild public confidence in it. Responding with a "like it or lump it" approach will squander an important opportunity.

But it is not surprising that Lib Dem party leader Tim Farron was quick to disown Cable's remarks. Farron sees an opportunity to “speak up for the 48 per cent” - though the idea of a 48 per cent tribe of aggrieved Remainers is a mirage. About 6m of the 16m Remain voters only made up their mind in the last four weeks of the campaign. Many pragmatic Remainers now believe that the Government should act on the Leave outcome. A majority of those who voted Remain share Cable’s view that freedom of movement should end too, as the New Economics Foundation’s study of the attitudes of the 48 per cent reveals.

But even a liberal tribe of half of the 48 per cent offers a decent opportunity for a Liberal Democrat party which fell to 8 per cent of the electorate in 2015 to climb back up to 15 per cent.

You could call this strategy "Cosmopolitan Ukip" - a liberal mirror party to Nigel Farage's populist insurgency. These populist liberals articulate a new sense of anger and dispossession in the university towns and metropolitan centres, and even steal the slogan "give us our country back".  As former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg told John Harris for his Radio 4 documentary on populism, the liberals may be challenged with being an out-of-touch elite, but they can claim to be the outsiders now. 

Even if Farron’s approach still makes tactical sense, there are limits to the "Cosmopolitan Ukip" approach too. Even electorally, voters are always more eclectic than pundits and activists realise. To keep their seats,  Lib Dem MPs Norman Lamb in North Norfolk and Greg Mulholland in Leeds will need to combine ardent liberal Remainers with more pragmatic ex-Remain voters and, indeed, the one in three Lib Dem voters who backed Brexit in June.

But the bigger critique of Farron's strategy is about the liberal outcomes his party should pursue. It is important liberal causes are not restricted by being defined as the voice of a minority tribe. The Lib Dems can benefit electorally by differentiating themselves from Labour and Conservative Remainers. However, their ability to actually shape Brexit will depend on forging cross-party alliances in Parliament. Similarly, success on issues like refugee protection, and challenging hate crime, depend on broader support.

Cable’s most interesting point is that “there is no great argument of liberal principle for free EU movement”. While there is a principled argument for EU free movement, it is likely to fail in Britain.

That argument is that we should have open migration from the EU, but not from outside it, because we are citizens of Europe.  In most EU countries, most people put their national identity first, and combine it with a sense of European identity too. That makes EU free movement feel like a hybrid category, combining immigration with internal labour mobility. But Britain has a much weaker sense of European identity - indeed only 15 per cent say they have a sense of European identity, while two-thirds say their identity is national only.

That explains why, in Britain, both supporters and critics of free movement do think it is simply common sense to refer to this as "immigration". If a politician tried to argue that it is a mistake to refer to Italians or Poles in Britain as migrants, because they are EU mobile citizens, most people would simply be baffled. 

Instead, British supporters of EU free movement tend to be simply pro-immigration. They might aspire to the ideal of a borderless world, so consider openness to Europe as a start, rather than believing in the principle of openness to Europeans in particular.

This case for EU free movement is too open for most Brits – and, at the same time, it is too parochial for the most cosmopolitan, while those with Commonwealth connections feel it to be unfair. Asked to design an immigration system from scratch, if the EU did not exist, very few people would make it a point of principle that immigration should prefer Bulgarians to Indians, on the grounds that we are European.

So it is, as Cable argues, “the argument for free movement has become tactical: it is part of a package that also contains the wider economic benefits of the single market”.

Open Britain, the successor campaign to the official Remain campaign, recognises that it won’t win the argument for the single market, or for the strongest possible trade relationship with Europe, if it depends on arguing that nothing can change on free movement.

Most people want more control over the pace of migration, while recognising migration itself brings both gains and pressures to British society. The public sees the referendum vote as a chance to strike a balance. This could mean strong support for skilled migration, combined with more control over the scale of low-skilled immigration. My own organisation, British Future, has proposed a preferential migration offer to Europe, where visa-free travel could be accompanied by sector-specific job quotas. This would fit too with the calls from Cabinet ministers, such as Andrea Leadsom on agriculture and Sajid Javid on house-building, to ensure that a more controlled system does involve choosing to keep low and semi-skilled immigration that key sectors need.

Cable has set liberals a challenge. They should rise to it - and back a new system which strikes that balance, and gives Britain a positive offer to take into the negotiations for a new post-Brexit relationship with Europe.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”