Like many Brits, Tony Blair completely misunderstands freedom of movement

Britons see borders where their European neighbours see lines on the map. 

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Last week, former British prime minister Tony Blair, who is campaigning for a second referendum on Brexit, said something that made no sense. It wasn’t about another vote (although repeating that it is “probably going to happen” when the British government is running out of time to prepare for no deal, let alone organising a new vote, isn’t exactly the political declaration of the year). It was about the free movement of people within the European Union, and how the UK, by staying in the union, could help reform it.

Tony Blair, who for ten years, one month and 25 days was the leader of an EU member state, said: “Freedom of movement is also an issue. It’s an issue in the rest of Europe as well. It’s why, for example, some countries in Europe say ‘if you come, migrate from another country in Europe and you haven’t found a job within a couple of months and the means to support yourself, you’re put back out again.’” Freedom of movement, Blair added, “has got to operate in a way that is fair and just, doesn’t undercut wages, and doesn’t cause problems for individual countries”.

That a former British leader, a Remainer and pro-Europe politician so fundamentally misrepresents the EU principle of free movement speaks volumes about the UK’s concept of migration as a whole. Freedom of movement allows EU nationals to live and work in another EU country. Under freedom of movement, jobseekers can move to another EU country to look for work, and although your host country can ask you to leave, it can only do so after six months (not “a couple of months”), and can only deport you if it can prove you pose a serious threat. You won’t “be put back out” under free movement for moving to another country and trying to find work there – that is quite essentially what freedom of movement is for. Blair is wrong in his very definition of what the EU thinks as borders: migrants from within the EU aren’t seen as a problem, it’s the ones from outside that are.

Brexit has long put the “us vs them” line between the UK and the EU, from Nigel Farage’s “Breaking point” posters to Theresa May’s broken record speeches promising to “take back control of our borders, laws and money”, in this specific order. You would think the law would come first – Brexit was supposed to be about sovereignty, after all – or that at least money would prevail, because the City and UK businesses must be preserved. But no: it’s always borders first. Borders with the EU.

No matter that EU migration greatly benefits the country. A report from the Migration Advisory Committee found that EU citizens living in the UK pay in more tax than they take out in benefits; that migration can lead to new jobs instead of competition for existing ones; and that there is no evidence that European migrants are draining public services. As the British government plans to impose a £30,000 threshold on new EU migrants, it’s clear that post-Brexit, no EU nationals in their right mind will choose to move to the UK where they’ll be stigmatised as “migrants” when they can work in 27 countries where they'll be considered “workers” like anyone else.

Freedom of movement expert Tony Blair is just the latest in a long series of British politicians to misunderstand free movement or demonise it altogether – but because he’s a Remainer, it somehow hurts double. What’s the point of campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU if you too disagree with one of its founding principles? If the long and painful process of the Brexit negotiations showed one thing, it was the incredible ingenuity demonstrated by the British side to cherry-pick between the EU’s other freedoms (of capitals, goods, and services) while ditching free movement of people, and the infinite patience of the EU side, which found thousands of ways to politely explain that it wasn’t going to happen. Remainers are supposed to know better – to, at the very least, understand what they wish to remain into. As Stephen Bush rightly wrote: if second referendum campaigners can’t stand up for free movement, they should give up.

Britons see borders where their European neighbours see lines on the map. European holidaymakers can pack their luggage in France in the morning, change a flat tyre in Germany at 11am, picnic on a Swiss motorway rest area at lunch, and set their tent on an Italian camping ground in time for tea (well, Spritz), without having to queue miserably at airports or at Dover ferries once.

Tony Blair, Theresa May, and many other Brits misunderstand free movement because they’ve never properly lived it. Britain’s only regulated border is the sea – and the UK’s only land border in the British Isles was a danger zone for decadesWithin the borderless Schengen area, frontiers mean as little as driving through villages. In my home region in France, which is close to both Luxembourg and Germany, locals live in the first country, work in the second and shop in the third. They know that petrol and tobacco are cheaper in Luxembourg, but that Germany offers cosmetics for the best price. Luxembourg is the closest airport, Saarbrücken the closest big city. Different languages blur into dialects, people accommodate; the borders were there before us but we cross them without minding. Why would we? We speak French but we’ll buy pretzels, and they’ll order baguette with a German accent.

The Brits, on their island, have borders they don’t share. How lonely must they feel.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.