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15 September 2017

Is the EU going to curb free movement after all?

Political support for the Schengen travel zone is eroding among member states.

By Stephen Bush

Could there be life in Britain’s membership of the European Union yet?

Although it wasn’t the only reason Britain voted to leave the EU, without the free movement of people, there would have been no Brexit vote.

Although for the most part, opposition to the EU at Westminster is driven by other issues, like the loss of sovereignty or the supposed statist impulses of the EU, or the difficulty of being a leading member outside the eurozone, these are concerns that would struggle to pull in 10 per cent of the country. You have to add in anger about migration from the rest of the EU to get to 52 per cent.

That in turn drives the British government towards a Brexit that lets Britain escape one of the four freedoms, which all-but-guarantees a hard exit from the EU. Even continuing to be a member of the EEA or the single market wouldn’t allow the government to satisfy that particular itch.

But what if the free movement of people wasn’t quite so inescapable after all? That’s the question raised by a story in today’s Times.

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That paper’s Brussels correspondent Bruno Waterfield has got hold of a proposal backed by the French, German, Austrian and Danish governments to effectively kill the Schengen agreement, which allows passport-free travel between the nations of the EU plus the EEA-Efta states, with the exceptions of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland (both voluntarily through opt-outs) and four which are legally obliged to join at some point.

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Could curbs to free movement be next? That’s the argument being made by some Remainer politicians and pundits: they’re saying that the news validates the “remain and reform” argument put forward by David Cameron, the Remain campaign and Tom Watson in the final days of the campaign. On the other side, some Brexiteers (and indeed some Remainers) are using it as a stick to beat Cameron with, showing that he could have got a deal on free movement if he’d pushed ahead. Are they right?

Well, the find is big news as far as the post-Brexit development of the EU27 goes but the importance is being muddled somewhat in translation. What’s eroding political support for Schengen is not opposition to unfettered legal movement between the nations of the EU, but that it eases illegal movement of criminals, particularly terrorists, and particularly by road. (The Berlin truck attacker Anis Amri escaped from Germany by train before being killed by police in Milan, but his escape was through several policed borders – it was a problem of competence, not Schengen.)

With the exception of Germany, which, like the United Kingdom, became the employer of last resort for much of the bloc and the eurozone in particular as those economies recovered faster than the rest, when politicians on the European mainland talk about reform of migration, they are largely talking about refugees. When politicians in Britain talk about reform, they are largely talking about economic migrants.

So, no, David Cameron’s renegotiation probably wouldn’t have worked out better if he’d stamped his foot a little bit more, and no, “reform” of free movement probably isn’t on the cards. People arguing for a more open British economy and a close relationship or even re-entry to the EU are going to have to convince people of the value of free movement if they want it to succeed.