Free Movement of People - a key freedom.

by Daivid Barnsdale

The Myth
The Brexiters have pushed the idea that migration leads to low wages. Boris Johnson notoriously attempted a Bank of England Report (The impact of immigration on occupational wages: evidence from Britain) in support of that claim which Alex Salmond was able to counter that in fact it showed that overall the effect on wages of migration was miniscule. Overall. However, the report did show that for every increase of the proportion of migrants of 10% wages fell by 1.9%. 10% is the equivalent to going from 10% to 20% these quite large changes but 1.9% is not insignificant.
However that is all-other-things-being-equal. The hit that wages will take from losing membership of the single market will dwarf that. Further, those percentages are modest compared the devastation that has been dealt to the living standards of working class communities by deindustrialization and automation. Boris Johnson chose that study because it was the most favorable to case he was trying to make. Many other studies have shown that the effect of migration on wages is either non-existent or moderate and temporary .(Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them by Philippe Legrain, Chapter Six)
Theresa May has staked her political future on Brexit which will end free movement. Derailing that project is going to be hard. Even the limited aim of preventing Britain being excluded from the single market will require a large scale groundswell of opinion and its hard to see how that is possible without winning over those communities.
Could Britain secure a modification of free movement in the negotiations? British governments has been spent much of the last forty years playing a game of chicken. Chicken is the negotiating tactic where one side makes out they are crazy enough to do something that will harm both sides in order that the other side will be scared into making concessions. The perception that euroscepticism in Britain meant that there was always a risk she could leave has allowed British governments to get their way - its hard to see how else Britain, one of the wealthiest countries could have retained the rebate so long without that threat. But a threat once put into action loses its force so the days can expect special treatment ended the day Britain voted for Brexit. But might Britain be able to persuade the 27 to make changes to Free movement that would apply to all members of the single market and so not require special treatment for Britain?
Open Britain has listed a number of options that would not involve any special treatment for Britain.
Of these the most problematic is the option to impose sector-specific emergency brakes. This is a total denial of the right of free movement but as it is limited in time and in the numbers might such a restriction be worth it to allay the fears of opponents? It is unlikely that the EU will agree to such a clause as part of a deal giving Britain access to the single market unless in a form so restrictive that it the option is never exercised. But if it exercised ever was it is unlikely to satisfy those Brexiters for who the single market is an anathema. Rather any emergency brake will give official endorsement to the claim that it is migration that is the prime cause problems such as low wages and/or pressure on public services so fueling anti free movement myths. Simply the existence of such an option wold be a gift to an austerity government that wishes to scapegoat migrants for the result of cuts of public services. If that was blocked by EU representatives then the blame could be placed at the door of the EU. Hence the existence of an emergency brake as it would perpetuate the dynamic that British politicians feed hostility to the EU as a way of deflecting public hostility from themselves and so boost those Brexiters for whom exit from the single market is their real aim.
Second option is to scrap free movement of people for people in favor of free movement of labor. Free movement of people is the single one of the four freedoms that actually represents a freedom for ordinary people - all the others are freedom for business. Open Britain concedes that something like this could not be secured unless part of a change that applied to all members. Hence what is proposed is that the Britain attempts to persuade the EU as a whole to scrap this right but in so doing it taking the heart out of EU reducing to a trading club. Further it means that those who came to Britain would be dependent on the work permit that the employer secured for them and they would have no right to bring their family. Such workers would tend to be isolated from the communities they were imported into and so vulnerable to exploitation.
The opposite approach is to insist that certain jobs should be first advertised locally. Provided this still allows people to go anywhere in Europe and gain the status of "local" wherever and as soon as they take up residence it leaves the rights of citizens with their right of free movement intact. What it does restrict is the right of business to parachute workers in as they wish. In so far as it means EU workers in other countries will have at least a minimum of a connection with the communities they join that isn't really such a bad thing. It remains, however, a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist and currently there is not sign that it will compatible with membership of the single market.
Finally Open Britain proposes that sector wide statutory Wage and Training Councils. This at last is something that tackles real problems. Wages would be set for whole sectors by negotiations between trades-union representatives and business leaders. This would ensure that the workers would be working together whether native born or migrant and ensure the protection of all against low wages. The training would give those workers prospects of progressing as well has helping the communities they belong to gain in prosperity. This is the option that Remainers need to get behind and give their full support to.
The need for concrete solutions for the left-behind comunities.
But this is not the whole story. Immigrants may be the the cause of the problems of the left-behind communities but their problems are real. The referendum gave those communities a chance to express their sense of grievance by voting Leave. Unless we who are working to maintain links with the EU are able to come up with a vision that gives those communities hope they will not be won over. Telling them they will be even worse off under Brexit will not cut it. The parts of Britain that gain by continued membership of the single market need to back the transfers that will be needed to ensure the benefits of the prosperity that the single market offers is shared more fairly.