Some argue that we must leave the European single market because of its provisions on freedom of movement. But to do so would have a major economic and social cost. Can we address public concerns about migration without leaving the single market?
The short answer is: Yes we can.
First, and most drastic, freedom of movement is not an unconditional right. There are significant restrictions within EU law that could be applied, that Britain has consistently failed to use. It is Britain’s ongoing failure to use such safeguards fully that has created the impression that free movement is a free-for-all. It isn’t. Under EU rules, those moving to another country must, after a short time, either be in work or be self sufficient, failing which they can be asked to leave (as is done in many other EU countries).
Similarly, so-called “benefit tourism”, to the extent it really exists, can also be tackled within EU rules. In 2016, the European Court of Justice ruled that a country is entitled to withhold basic benefits from EU migrants if they have come with no intention of finding a job. It is also worth pointing out that EU migrants, overall, pay one third more in taxes than they take out in welfare and the use of public services, so they are net contributors to our exchequer. They pay their way.
But what of the understandable fear that EU migrant workers can undercut wages and job prospects of the resident workforce? Academic studies have actually produced very little evidence to support the claim that immigration dramatically affects the wages and job prospects of UK-born workers, with the exception of the construction sector. On the contrary, if they weren’t filling key vacancies, whole firms could be under threat, jeopardising British jobs. But in the construction sector, we could certainly do more to make sure that the minimum wage and going rates are properly enforced.
A new development at EU level will help, namely the revision of the posted workers directive. Workers posted by their companies on a temporary basis can be paid salaries that are lower than the local workforce. However, President Macron recently secured the agreement of the majority of EU member states to reform these rules. It would be a mistake to walk away from the Single Market out of concern over an issue which is in the process of being addressed.
There are many other things that a British government could and should do to address people’s concerns about the impacts of immigration.
To begin with, the Migration Impact Fund, which was scrapped by the coalition in 2010, should be re-established. The fund, which was introduced in 2008 to ease the pressure of immigration on public services, directed some of the surplus made by the Treasury from EU migrants to areas where disproportionately high numbers of migrations have put pressure on public services.
We could also make it obligatory to advertise all job vacancies locally, ending the practice in some firms and some agencies of only advertising in Poland or Lithuania.
We should reverse the spending and staffing cuts to the border force, to ensure that serious criminals are deported or refused entry to the UK. A strong and well-resourced border force is essential for combating illegal migration and trafficking, and for providing reassurance to the public that the rules are being enforced.
Greater steps could also be taken to facilitate integration of immigrants into British society. But we should recognise that EU migrants make a vital contribution to our country. They bring innovation and ideas to our economy; they pay taxes that help us invest in our public services; and they are our friends, family and neighbours. The economic and social implications of dramatically reducing migration would be profound. Already, the drop of more than 90 per cent in the number of nurses from other EU countries applying to work in the NHS is aggravating the NHS crisis.
And when it is claimed that freedom of movement prevents us from reducing immigration to Britain, it is worth recalling two things. First, that it is a reciprocal right, with well over a million Brits in other EU countries (some of whom are retirees, thereby lessening the burden on our social care and health service). Second, that most migrants to Britain have come from outside the EU, entirely under British rules, nothing to do with EU freedom of movement.
All things considered, leaving the single market in order to end free movement is barking up the wrong tree.
Richard Corbett MEP is the Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party. He is a co-author of Busting the Lexit Myths, a report published today by Open Britain and the Labour Campaign for the Single Market.