Trying (too hard) to curb EU free movement: A symptom of the EU-wide social democracy meltdown

Just as I was reading Nick Tyrone’s blog about Corbyn betraying the EU freedom of movement but wanting to have the EU cake nonetheless, another recently-elected Labour leader came on Dutch public radio. Note the date: Tuesday, January 10th, 2017.

I’m talking about former Amsterdam alderman and present Dutch minister of Social Affairs, the ambitious lawyer Lodewijk Asscher of the “Partij van de Arbeid”/PvdA, literally: “Labour Party”.

In the 1980s, when Labour under Michael Foot was going through its “Militant Tendency” phase, the then PvdA leaders, ex-prime minister (1973-’77) Den Uyl and coming prime minister (1994-2002) Wim Kok deplored that leftist populism and leftist political correctness gone wild. So both criticised it: British Labour, come to your senses.

Not today.

In the Dutch campaign that just got started for the General Election on 15th March, Mr. Asscher, who just two weeks ago won a party leadership contest, just said that he counted on “European Leftist support” (PvdA jargon: from fellow Labour and social democratic parties) to pursue his top-profile policy: curbing free movement of labour through the EU. When the radio presenter quoted a phrase Gordon Brown grew to regret: “Jobs for our labourers first”, Mr. Asscher readily agreed. And who does he expect to get support from?

  • The French Socialists have shriveled under non-reforming Hollande, and won’t grow if Valls start reforming to make up for time lost;
  • Mr. Asscher explicitly cited Corbyn as a “valued teacher showing the way”; but graphs in The Economist  show Labour 20% under the Tories, and Corbyn even further under May in popularity or voter confidence.
  • The Spanish PSOE has been hit from the left (Podemos) and centre-right (Ciudadános; social liberal pragmatists), and still has a nepotist internal structure and party culture;
  • The Italian socialists (the former clean Berlinguer communists; Craxi’s Socialists succumbed to structural sleeze in 1992) just gambled and lost on a Referendum on constitutional reforms the country badly needs;
  • And documentaries from the German Ruhr industrial cities on Dutch TV showed how the SPD has lost its working-class base to the AfD populist promising miraculous recovery through protectionism and xenophobia. SPD councillors now stand for AfD.
  • And Asschers own PvdA, on around 30 to 40 seats (of the 150 in our Commons) in 2006-‘12, has been hovering around 10 for the last two years.

In the years 1900-1930, Social-Democrats in Germany, Holland, the UK and Belgium pushed the (social)Liberals down from their position as one of the three big parties. It seems that is reversing, and that EU social democrats can’t get their act together for a revival.

If Grillo (Italian populist) hadn’t blundered yesterday on his reversal of EU course, trying to join the ALDE liberals, one could get the idea that whatever populists do, they grow. And because many of Labour’s present MPs are Remainers, UKIP can hang on to its newly conquered working class electorate..

Asscher is pragmatic enough to compromise on access for Eastern European labour; but Corbyn is more of the stubborn, hard-left variety, and a former decades-long Eurosceptic…

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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  • Little Jackie Paper 11th Jan '17 - 2:08pm

    ‘Mr. Asscher, who just two weeks ago won a party leadership contest, just said that he counted on “European Leftist support” (PvdA jargon: from fellow Labour and social democratic parties) to pursue his top-profile policy: curbing free movement of labour through the EU.’

    How specifically does he intend to reify this policy, and what success does he think he will have?

    ‘Asscher is pragmatic enough to compromise on access for Eastern European labour’

    What are these ‘compromises’ and how specifically is it proposed to enact them?

    Serious questions – not getting at anyone.

  • Katharine Pindar 11th Jan '17 - 2:49pm

    Whatever support Mr Asscher may or may not get from related left and social democrat parties in the EU, he should not expect it from the liberal democratic parties, if our own is anything to go by. At the last Federal conference of the Liberal Democrats in Brighton in September 2016, it was resolved in motion F27 entitled ‘Britain in the European Union’ that a priority in any negotiations about Britain leaving the EU should be ‘Membership of the Single Market, with its ‘four freedoms’ of freedom of movement for workers, free movement of goods, free movement of capital and freedom to provide services… ‘ (section 9 b). Further on (section 9 c), the motion passed states as a priority ‘Protecting freedom of movement, so that British citizens retain the right to live and work throughout the EU, and opportunities are maximised in particular for young people…’ (going on to applaud the Erasmus scheme).
    So, whatever the British Labour Party may eventually decide its policy is on free movement of workers in the EU, if it ever manages to reach agreement, the British Liberal Democrats gave a strong lead with its motion passed by Conference just four months ago.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Jan '17 - 3:07pm


    I abhor populism as a driver , but popularity is earned. I do not have any ideological liking or disliking of the freedom of movement policy. On it I am a pragmatist.

    But the mood music is not playing a very different melody for no reason. the din on the one side has been met by musak on the other. It is time to meet the desire for new music , with better than greatest hits everyone is fed up with bar the fan club.

    Sorry Katharine , in my view we , European Liberal Democrats yes , social democrats , Christian Democrats , are in need of more than elevator music, when it is a lift to no where !

  • nigel hunter 11th Jan '17 - 3:21pm

    Grillo wishes to join the Liberal movement. Would it not be worth thinking about letting him join.? This would put a hole in the UKIPPER alliance and hopefully reduce the right wing funding in the EU and therefore weaken it. Worth considering.

  • jedibeeftrix 11th Jan '17 - 5:27pm

    “Grillo wishes to join the Liberal movement. Would it not be worth thinking about letting him join.? This would put a hole in the UKIPPER alliance and hopefully reduce the right wing funding in the EU and therefore weaken it.”

    From the perspective of Britain (about to leave the EU), isn’t that rather irrelevant as a domestic consideration?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Jan '17 - 8:32pm


    Beppe Grillo and his movement tried to join ALDE, a few years ago and were rejected. Then it was probably a mistake , as the 5* movement , were not very highly obvious in their ideology and would have probably evolved into , if such a thing is possible , a more liberal , if populist oriented, movement.

    Now it is established, I can see Guy and co. have reservations , and understand those. Grillo, is no obvious candidate for strong Liberal support , though he has things to praise in his trajectory too. It might have been better to offer the movement a period og grace to convince , ie , show your liberal credentials and your’e in ! A bit like Fianna Fiall in Ireland have !

    Also, there is a Liberal Democrat component , in the Democratic party in Italy , and it links with ALDE and Liberal International, even though the Democrats are in the Progressive Alliance. The American Democrats do likewise, with the Democratic National Institute , within the Liberal International orbit , even though the Democratic Party in the USA have some years ago , daftly , but undestandably knowing their left progressive , wing , signed up to the Progressive Alliance.

  • Bernard Aris 11th Jan '17 - 9:27pm

    Grillo’sv 5 Star Movement (M5s) is so extreme in its direct democracy internal & parliamentary decision making that they are thoroughly not durable in their position. I quote the English Wikipedia about this movement:
    “(…) The idea is that citizens will no longer delegate their power to parties, considered old and corrupted intermediates between the State and themselves, that serve the interests of lobby groups and financial powers. (…)
    Through an application called “Operating System” reachable on the web,[95] the registered users of M5S discuss, approve or reject legislative proposals (submitted then in the Parliament by the M5S group). (…)
    The choice to support the abolition of a law against immigrants was taken online by members of the M5S even if the final decision was against the opinion of Grillo (…).”

    And after years of campaigning against the EU and EMU as “instruments of Big Finance and Multinationals”, Grillo and his ideologue, the late Casaleggio, have created a core support group that is suspicious of- and very hostile to the EU, the Common Market and globalization.
    If Grillo was going to wriggle out of that past, the Russian-aided Lega Nord (even nastier populists) would be sure to remind voters of that past, denting and soiling Grillo’s “clean hands” and Anti-Party-System credentials.

    Among the new Dutch populist parties campaigning in the General Elections is one who promises tot let the voting of its MP in parliament be decided by an online mini-referendum on each voting subject on the party website.
    Both VVD and D66 (the Dutch ALDE parties) would have dented their credibility by helping admit Grillo to ALDE, after Grillo had roasted the D66 EU federalists at every turn until this week.
    No way José!

  • Bernard Aris 11th Jan '17 - 11:55pm

    A two part answer to @ Jackie Paper

    As a minister (2012-’17) of “Social Affairs and Unemployment” (the Unemployment bit was added in 1981 to the departments name to persuade Asschers party PvdA to enter a coalition under a prime minister the PvdA hated) Asscher has fought a reasonable crusade against ways by Dutch employers to hire Eastern European labour to work on a season basis (agriculture) or for years on end (truckdrivers, roadbuilding) and avoid paying salaries on a par level with salaries of Dutch employees doing the same jobs.
    But now, since becoming PvdA (Labour) party leader in the March 2017 General Election, Asscher has labeled his personal agenda “Progressive Patriotism” with clear undertones of “Dutch workers and interest first”, in a bid to regain voters in areas and in big cities where the PvdA has lost large sections of working-class voters to populist parties like PVV and the local party Leefbaar Rotterdam (see Wikipedia/English).
    That does not stop the PvdA from closing every party conference by singing the socialst anthem of the Second Socialist Internastional, proclaiming that “comrades, one last push and the Workers International will govern the whole earth”.

    At the same time Mr. Dijsselbloem, sitting PvdA Chancellor of the Exchequer and president of the “EMU Group” of ministers who bullied Greece into searing social cuts, is contravening the cabinet policy of the Second Rutte Government (Liberal/Socialist coalition, VVVD-PvdA, 2012-’17) he has defended up to now, in calling at every opportunity for higher company taxes, knowing full well that wil stimulate more taks evasion and fiscal juggling, and will cost jobs by closing factories and suchlike.
    Everybody knows his coalition partner VVD is going to win around 25-30 seats and PvdA will have to scramble to recover to around 15 seats, so this policy promise is sure to be canceled in coalition talks (around 50 seats in the next parliament of 150 seats will go to populists; that forces pragmatic and centric parties to cobble together a 4- or 5 party coalition). The proposal is a non-starter with liberal parties VVD and D66 and the Christian Democrats CDA.

  • Bernard Aris 11th Jan '17 - 11:57pm

    A two part answer to @ Jackie Paper, part 2
    My sentence about Asscher being a pragmatist is a prophesy: once the election is over, he will retrurn to his moderate Migrant Workers policy as minister; curbing one of the four EU Common Market Freedoms is sure to harm the position as “Port of Entry” (Rotterdam harbour; Schiphol Airport) of Holland in the EU Common Market and our age-old trade with England, Germany and France.
    That pragmatism is something I think Corbyn is unable to do for ideological or psychological/personality reasons. But for three months, Corbyn will think Asscher is an ally.

  • Bernard Aris 12th Jan '17 - 12:10am

    @ Lorenzo Cherin

    don’t confuse
    *) the old Radical Party (part of the liberal three: Republicans, Liberals, Radicals), which flourished in the First Italian Republic with its Multi-parties-system (1946-1992) under Marco Panella proposing many progressive points social liberals can readily asgree with (divorce, abortion, gay rights), and with a democratic system (see English Wikipedia)

    *Beppe Grillo’s authoritarian guidance of the 5 Star Movement (and policy flip-flops when party online referenda contravened Grillo’s dictats), and his bullying attitude towards local mayors of his party in Rome, Turin and suchlike. Panella was vain and colourful, but no internal bully or autocrat.
    Grillo is copying the way Berlusconi guided his party and coalition partners in the Second Republic (1992-present).

  • Katharine Pindar 12th Jan '17 - 1:16am

    Bernard’s discussion of the ‘meltdown of EU-wide social democracy’ here is interesting, especially perhaps to us in the suggestion that it may now have lost ground to (social) liberals. If Jeremy Corbyn, whose support is at least temporarily sought by Mr Asscher, is no longer convinced of the need to protect freedom of movement for EU citizens, the more reason for us here to point out that Liberal Democrat policy is still firmly in favour of it. I noticed that in the previous two threads about freedom of movement, the LD policy as reaffirmed at the last Federal Conference hadn’t actually been stated, so took the opportunity here to spell it out: apologies, Bernard, for somewhat diverting your theme to do so.

    The pressing reason for doing that is that we have a by-election to contest, where Liberal Democrats may hope to enhance their vote by showing their strong stance on this issue, as opposed to the Labour Party’s uncertainty and divisions. So, Lorenzo, I grieve over your gentle exasperation at my repetition of the theme, albeit in a different way to previously, but I think it is justified by need. The by-election is in my area, and we have in the last few hours selected the candidate, my fellow LD Executive member, town councillor Rebecca Hanson – an excellent choice – so that our work will begin at once, although the by-election will not be until March. I hope, Bernard, that your own March General Election will yield results agreeable to you

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Jan '17 - 3:22am


    You do not exasperate me , not a bit of it ! My reference was a general and florid one , was in that kind of mood !

    Delighted about Rebecca Hanson, I used to read her regularly on here and admire her work in education, we have exchanged ideas on here before, let her know we miss her on here !

    Katharine , you realise my fondness for our being broad and welcoming of views. Yours on freedom of movement are as welcome as mine or any good and constructive participant, only thing being your’e one of the best !

  • David Evershed 12th Jan '17 - 9:37am

    Free movement of labour within the EU is based on the presumption that member countries and new entrants will have reached a broadly similar economic level or are at least converging to the same level.

    The broadly similar economic position of EU members would mean no excessive pull of citizens from one country to another.

    However, a blind eye was turned to the criteria for entry and countries have joined which are nowhere near the same economic level nor converging on that level.

    As the leading economy in the continent, Germany draws workers from poorer member states. But Germany does not mind because its own population has been in decline and it has been in need of immigrants. The UK does mind because it is overcrowded and its own population has been growing without free movement from the EU.

  • “EU free movement”

    This another Brexit issue that deserves closer examination, as David Evershed notes originally it was about the free movement of workers within the EEC, now it is all about the free movement of persons within the EU. Thus a question has to be whether continued membership of the EEA with it’s free movement of workers requirement is acceptable.

    Rereading the EU fact sheets in the light of yesterday’s news concerning annual fee’s to employers of foreign workers, I wonder if the UK (and others) haven’t missed a trick. The focus of the law is on the worker/person and on factors that directly impact them. Thus it is clear that we cannot discriminate directly against a non-UK EU worker, however, there seems to be nothing stopping us from indirect discrimination, thus charging employers a duty/transaction tax on their employment of non-UK nationals and thus increasing the costs to the employer of employing non-UK nationals…

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Jan '17 - 2:34pm


    No confusion on my part, I do not believe you can judge a whole movement by one man, even if he started that movement .

    I believe my lack of any real support for Grillo was evident above , but trying to be fair to his many decent members or , rather , supporters.

    I am well aware of Panella and his Radical Party . Actually for a generation until not so long ago , only active as an international force , the Trans- national part of it .

    Once , and in the 1980s, 90s, my greatest cultural hero from Italy , Domenico Modugnio, the great singer songwriter and humanitarian, after a stroke ruined his life and career , stood as a Radical , social liberal , member of parliament and served a term before his tragic death in his late sixties. A man who was and is an inspiring figure.

    Another good liberal and Liberal Francesco Ruttelli , still in his prime , or in politics at least . We need more contact with him and the Liberals of various hues in Italy !

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Jan '17 - 2:36pm

    Sorry no i, in Modugno, apologies to the late great man

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th Jan '17 - 2:59pm

    David Evershed/Roland – I think that the bigger point here is more about how free movement interacts with the UK system. The result in some cases is that relatively generous in work benefits are available to EU people and the top-ups involved can be quite substantial relative to wages in home countries. The question is as much reciprocity as it is generosity. How many UK people realistically are in a position to move to the A8/A2 for wages/housing/in work welfare above UK levels?

    The EU argument has generally been, as I understand it, that social welfare systems are a competence of member states. To my mind this is arrant nonsense – if the design of social welfare is for states then surely eligibility for that welfare should be for states too as a matter of public policy? Free movement of people is not the same thing as free movement of welfare eligibility. In reality it is all swept under the single market carpet. What we have in effect is not free movement of labour but a generalised right of establishment. At that point the gaping asymmetry in the union is a real problem. I have to question what exactly is liberal in this picture.

    Throw in here that not only has the UK taken about 3x as many EU people as UK people have gone to the EU but also that the UK has long been a net contributor whilst the ‘people exporting’ states have been beneficiaries.

    If the in work benefits could be removed or restricted then a lot of the problems we see would probably be mitigated. We could, of course, make the in work benefits subject to residency length requirements or a number of hours worked (I think that some EU states do this) but that would hit UK people that leave and then return or drop to part time. And corporate interests mightn’t be too keen.

    I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but with free movement so clearly asymmetric I don’t think it unreasonable to think that there is a problem in need of resolution. Of course one option would be a single European welfare system, but I don’t think anyone has talked about that.

  • LJP “Free movement of people is not the same thing as free movement of welfare eligibility.”

    Agree with much of what you said and the further refinement to the problems and challenges that have arisen out of the way free movement has been defined and implemented within the EU.

    Also I would add free movement (across national borders) is not the same thing as a right to movement (across national borders). Similarly, free movement of persons is not the same as the right to residency.

    I do think that the biggest problem with the EU is that, like all change programmes, those at the forefront loss sight of the followers and so tend to want to embark on further change before the changes being implemented have rippled down the organisation. Thus I’m happy about the long-term objectives of the EU, just that I see little real value in rushing, just so that people (politicians) can tick all the boxes and celebrate the project’s completion. As we are seeing in their rush to complete the EU dream, the EU politicians have lost sight of the actual speed of cultural change, which is measured more in lifetimes than terms of office.

  • Katharine Pindar 12th Jan '17 - 8:01pm

    Roland, I can see your point about the EU leaders (surely including our own) having lost sight of their followers. But I don’t think there is any longer any rush ‘to complete the EU dream’, which I suppose was of a federal state with interdependent integrated nations within it. There are so many internal competing ideas now and so many barriers have gone up that surely free movement, however defined, will be reassessed. The great rush of people from the underdeveloped east to the west is surely past its peak, with the refugee and migrant influx playing its part in forcing reassessment. Maybe ‘managed’ EU migration will now be widely developed, for instance by obliging internal migrants either to have jobs or be self-sufficient in the countries they move to.
    Let us hope that a wiser Britain can play a part in constructive redevelopment of EU systems, governance and overarching aims, but will not try for more restrictions on benefits, since EU migrants are paying more in taxes than they are taking in contributions.

    Lorenzo, thank you for your kind response. I will certainly pass on your friendly message to Rebecca Hanson, who must have been a contributor here before I got involved last winter. We begin campaign work with leafletting and canvassing on Saturday. I suppose there is no chance you can come and lend us a hand for a day or two? We can offer some beds and it would be great to meet, but I guess you have too many responsibilities in Nottingham. Let me not trespass more on Bernard’s piece by asking you to reply to that suggestion (but do think on!). Welcome assured for any other Lib Dem contributor reading this.

  • Katharine – I agree, the increasing resistance to rushing ahead with the EU dream was becoming evident before the UK referendum. Hence, in my opinion, the UK held the referendum (several years) too early, before the general pushback from other EU electorates had been translated into an agenda change in Brussels. With Brussels more aligned with and receptive to the various EU electorates and their concerns, I suspect the referendum result could have been very different… ho hum!

  • Nom de Plume 12th Jan '17 - 10:06pm

    @ Little Jack Piper et al.

    I think they screwed the treaties up with regard to the details of freedom of movement. Not unlike what they did with the creation of the Euro. Too much politics and too little joined up thinking. Nevertheless, I still support Britain’s membership of the EU, despite the problems. Whether Britain’s are best served inside or outside the EU will become clearer in the next few months and years. I have my suspicions.

    The reasons for the Brexit vote are varied, but I would like to make two further points:

    (i) ‘the EU dream’, understood as a federalist project, is a myth believed only by readers of some UK newspapers and a few (albeit prominent) federalists. Nothing I have seen or heard from following european news outlets over a number of years has given any sign of this sentiment in any of the countries I am interested in. The rise of populist parties would suggest that the danger is quite the opposite.
    (ii) The sovereignty issue, apart from the question of identity, is about the vision for Britain’s future. I strongly support Britain’s membership of international institutions, in particular the EU. I am a Liberal.

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