Whether Brexit goes ahead or not, we will still have to accept freedom of movement

Britain could have slowed down, controlled and regulated the arrival of workers from Europe, but successive governments have chosen not to apply sensible measures that work elsewhere in the EU

Denis MacShane
Wednesday 06 June 2018 11:14
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Now Gordon Brown has entered the fray with ideas about registering workers and saying that those who do not find work should return home
Now Gordon Brown has entered the fray with ideas about registering workers and saying that those who do not find work should return home

The outcry over doctors from Commonwealth countries trained in the UK but then not allowed to work here is causing a stir.

It is an example of the problem of so-called freedom of movement, which has not been discussed since the referendum two years ago, but which will soon enough be used as a potentially insurmountable obstacle to maintaining single market access by those in favour of a falsely named “soft” Brexit.

Labour’s cautious move to endorse staying close to the EU’s internal market won’t be acceptable to the EU27, if Jeremy Corbyn still insists on supporting quotas or discriminatory treatment against European citizens offered jobs by UK employers.

Now Gordon Brown has entered the fray with ideas about registering workers and saying that those who do not find work should return home. These are commonplace in EU member states and the UK can toughen up rules without leaving the EU.

Freedom of movement did not come in with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, but was partially implemented with the introduction of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, when it was said that there should be no discrimination in the private sector hiring workers on the basis of nationality.

Today, the argument is that if hedge funds, Marmite or Japanese cars made in Britain can cross frontiers without let or hindrance it is not fair to stop workers.

It is not the EU that sent Europeans to work in Britain, but British employers who hired them.

Britain could have slowed down, controlled and regulated the arrival of workers from Europe, but successive governments have chosen not to apply sensible measures that work elsewhere in the EU.

Freedom of movement rules for example do not apply to state employment. Yet the biggest employer of EU citizens is the NHS, which sent recruitment teams to Poland and Portugal rather than train British-born doctors and nurses.

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A big user of EU workers are employment agencies. The EU Agency Workers Directive mandates staff employment after a short period of agency working, but it has never been enforced in the UK. The UK long ago gave up apprenticeship training so naturally employers turn to Europeans with key skills. Again, why not train properly skilled crafts workers especially in IT and AI sectors instead of being so dependent on men and women trained across the Channel?

In other countries ID cards or obligatory registration to get work, access health care, welfare and to rent a flat is common. Britain has refused both such measures that control the flow of arrivals. In Ireland the Polish population ranges between 4.5 per cent to 2.5 per cent compared to 1.7 per cent in the UK (and going down). But, no Irish politician or tabloid has whipped up the anti-Polish or anti-European fervour we have seen this century in Britain from Ukip and Europhobe editors.

Of course we can set up a giant new immigration bureaucracy full of jobsworths funded by the taxpayer to discriminate against Europeans and they will do the same to us. Better to copy sensible European countries and train our own doctors, nurses and skilled workers and start at least to have a nationwide registration system so we know who lives and works amongst us.

Leaving the EU’s internal market on any terms will mean setting up an immigration bureaucracy to decide who enters Britain, where they work, how long they can stay, if families can join them and if so, on what terms. It will be clunky, unfair and costly. Better to stay in the EU or the European Economic Area. But if we do it will still be necessary to reform the UK’s internal labour market and accept freedom of movement norms that other countries seem to operate without the hysteria of the Brexit ideologues in Britain.

Denis MacShane is the former minister of Europe and author of Brexit, No Exit, Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe

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