William Hague, the former Tory leader and Foreign Secretary, wants EU citizens to be automatically given work permits if they come to work in Britain or already live and work here after Brexit. It is not clear how this differs from the Worker Registration Scheme set up when I was Minister of Europe in 2004, when the decision was taken to let EU workers come to the UK.
Then, the UK already had hundreds of thousands of Polish residents and other Eastern Europeans who took advantage of visa free travel to come to Britain and work illegally. The EU Worker Registration scheme combined with the requirement to have National Insurance cards meant enhanced internal control.
Lord Hague appears to be saying that all EU workers who find a job can automatically be given a work permit. That is no different from the Worker Registration Scheme and is a form of internal rather than external control on worker movement such as quotas, requiring a job offer in writing before coming to the UK, or seasonal worker systems.
This move from external to internal controls on free movement, proposed by Lord Hague, should be welcomed as they do not, on the face of it, contradict EU treaty law and rules. They are also in line with what the Swiss have recently decided after their own referendum in February 2014, which voted to ban EU immigration.
At the annual New Year gathering of British and Swiss parliamentarians, Christa Markwalder, a Swiss Liberal MP and the youngest ever chair of the Swiss parliament, explained to Tory MPs how the Swiss handled their February 2014 referendum mandating an end to EU immigration.
“Like you we also had an important referendum three years ago about ‘taking back control’ of immigration to Switzerland. A tight majority of the voters accepted it”, she told them.
“As the dust settled and excitement died away we began to see that the emotion of saying ‘managing immigration ourselves’ may answer a question on a ballot paper. But it does not answer the question of what should be done.
“It should be clear that we cannot shut borders and hope to survive, let alone prosper. So in the three years since the referendum of February 2014 we parliamentarians and the economic actors of Switzerland had to decide whether emotion against foreigners should have greater weight than the economic interests of our country.
“We had many talks with the EU and the message was firm and clear. Brussels respected the Swiss referendum but could not change the rules and treaty obligations that the 28 EU member states had agreed to live under.
“And so in the end we produced a compromise based on strengthening internal controls of our labour market instead of preventing European citizens getting access to jobs in Switzerland.”
This proposal has won support of the Swiss People’s Party, which has always taken a hard line on Switzerland getting too close to the EU.
These internal controls are based on a requirement for firms to advertise jobs locally so that any Swiss citizen can apply and be interviewed. If the Swiss candidate is not qualified or suitable then the Swiss firm may turn to an EU worker. This compromise based on internal rather than external controls has been accepted by Brussels.
Now Austria’s social democratic chancellor Christian Kern has made a similar suggestion as Austria and Switzerland copycat each other; and Vienna politicians often follow Swiss initiatives.
Next year Austria goes to the polls and the strong showing for the far right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the presidential election in December means the Social Democrats need to regain working class votes.
But the Austrian idea is not based on external controls. EU freedom of movement does not apply to state employment and local labour markets can demand qualifications or ID checks on social security contributions within EU rules. William Hague’s proposal needs spelling out but the automatic granting of a work permit is just an updating of the 2004 Worker Registration Scheme. It is different from the calls by some Labour MPs for external controls, like having a job offer in writing before getting on Ryanair flight to come to the UK or quotas for different regions.
Like the Swiss plan this avoids directly confronting the EU by imposing Cold War era external controls on workers from Europe who want to add to the British economy.
Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe who worked for 15 years in Switzerland before becoming an MP. He is a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners and is the author of 'Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe'
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