Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
28 January 2019

There’s no future for British pro-Europeans if they can’t defend free movement

The only relationship with the EU that ends free movement is a hard Brexit.

By Stephen Bush

There are some political truths that are so mutually inconvenient that everyone simply chooses to ignore them. One is that the free movement of people within the nations of the European single market is wildly popular among European voters and is here to stay.

It’s not just that it is an essential pillar to the free movement of goods, services and capital within the single market: it is that the free movement of people is the most popular thing about the EU as far as every other European nation is concerned.

Almost every European country has an anti-immigration party that is enjoying a measure of electoral success; but that is driven by opposition to immigration from outside Europe, not within it. There is no electoral caucus for ending free movement worth a damn in any other European country bar the United Kingdom.

That’s why any effort to stay in the European Union while “reforming” freedom of movement, such as the one proposed today by Gina Miller and Maurice Saatchi, will not work.

That fact is difficult for Brexiteers to accept, because doing so means accepting that the rest of the European Union refuses to limit free movement, not because it is particularly undemocratic or staffed by unrepresentative elites, but because it is the settled will of most Europeans that it continues. It is difficult for Remainers to accept, because doing so means accepting that opposition to free movement is a British peculiarity that is not going to be appeased, and can only be addressed with a hard exit from the European Union.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

If you are not willing to at the least accept that free movement is the price you pay for a close relationship with the European Union, the best UK-EU relationship available is the one negotiated by Theresa May. 

Content from our partners
The shrinking road to net zero
The tree-planting misconception
Is your business ready for corporate climate reporting?