Brexit: An opportunity to extend freedom of movement

Let’s turn Brexit on its head. Let’s not only lobby to remain members of the European Union’s single market, but have free movement of goods, capital, services and people included in our future free trade agreements with some non-EU countries. After all, as liberals we’re not only Europeans, but internationalists. Let’s turn crisis into opportunity by breaking down borders between this country and others around the world.

Wouldn’t it be great if Britons could live, work, study and start a business in Japan, South Korea or Australia with the same ease as we can in Spain and Germany today? It would strengthen trade and political ties between us and those nations, enrich our cultural experience and ensure Britain is internationalist not isolationist in this brave new Brexit world.

Although many Britons would oppose free movement of people from large countries with low per capita incomes, such as India, or having any kind of free trade deal with autocracies like Saudi Arabia, it would be difficult to argue against these arrangements with small and medium-sized democracies with per capita GDP’s similar to our own: Migration from countries like Taiwan, Norway and Canada is likely to be moderate and  counterbalanced by Britons heading the other way, so wage levels, public finances and housing supply are not likely to be strained.

There would be much to gain from extending free movement of people to non-EU democracies. It would bring fresh blood into the science and creative sectors, boost overseas student numbers at British universities and help employers bridge skills gaps. Not even Nigel Farage has complained about German migrants in Britain; indeed, he is married to one.  So, presumably, migrants from Switzerland, Singapore and New Zealand would be equally welcome with him.

To help us win the argument in favour of free movement of people, let’s remind voters that Britons were economic migrants in the past, as I was in the 1990s, and are likely to be again. Today, migrants might come to Britain, because we’ve got the jobs, but when the economic cycle turns, then we may need to find work in some of their countries. Open borders will ensure our workers have somewhere to go. It’s a pity that Auf Wiedersehen Pet, a 1980’s series about British building workers in Germany, wasn’t broadcast during the referendum, because that might have jogged memories among some older Brexit voters.

immigration was never mentioned in the referendum question, and, as Lord Ashcroft’s poll of 24 June shows, a desire to reclaim sovereignty was by far the biggest issue for Brexit voters. Let’s not dignify the racist attacks that have followed the referendum result by accepting anti-migrant arguments, but campaign vigorously for continued free movement of goods, services, capital and people with the EU and extend this principle as far as possible in our dealings with the rest of the world – that’s the liberal solution to this Tory-made problem.

* Richard Warren is a journalist who is a member of Richmond Park Liberal Democrats.

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  • The problem with this argument is that it is not what the voting majority of British people want. Virtually every survey of attitudes reveals about 70% of the British public wants lower immigration. The big one by the BBC put it at about 78% and even the Channel 4’s News found a figure of around 65%. The point being that whilst not the main reason for Brexit, it is a wider concern of even a fair few Remain voters. In short freedom of movement is simply not popular. The morality is less relevant than whether it is wanted by enough of the electorate to fly.

  • Open borders are a great thing. As an authority said “We’ll find trillion dollar bills on the sidewalk”. Yes, it’s true that the worst thing a politician ever did was to invent borders. No one bothered to understand immigration. Everyone should read the cover article in the April 15, 2016 issue of New Scientist and learn something about migration and immigration. But this ignorant, illiterate nation has voted to close the borders, especially between the EU and Northern Ireland and guarantee that the UK goes bankrupt, withers and dies. Even poor little Greece, Portugal and Spain all have a better health service than the UK. Welcome to Brexit Land

  • Andrew Hickey
    Not really, because the remaining 30% may include don’t knows and is not made up of people who are only pro free movement. This figure will include outright socialists., Tories, the odd anarchist etc, An estimated 30% of Lib Dems voted Leave for instance. The point being that no one issue is a defining factor in deciding how someone will vote. Nick Clegg pitched the Lib Dems as the Party of Europe and debated UKIP. It did not work out too well.
    Ultimately, to do well in politics you have to appeal to people on all sorts of issues otherwise what you have is a pressure group. It is far better to concentrate on things with mass domestic appeal like living standards, education and health than on side issues like electoral reform or immigration. Especially, when those side issues are not actually that popular. I agree to an extent there is room for a pro free movement argument, but not for it to dominate. Personally, I would pitch the Lib Dems on a broad platform of social/economic reforms and egalitarianism. Progressive, without being socialist.

  • Little Jackie Paper 23rd Sep '16 - 1:52pm

    ‘it would be difficult to argue against these arrangements with small and medium-sized democracies with per capita GDP’s similar to our own:’

    This bit seemed to me to be key. Let’s at least be honest that on EU freedom of movement the lack of reciprocity was a problem in the referendum. If 2m+ young unemployed UK people could have headed to countries in the A8 and A2 for wages/housing/in-work benefits then we’d probably have had a 95% remain vote.

    Having flows of capital is one thing, but flows of people do matter. If there isn’t broad reciprocity then there’s a problem with this union. Yes, granny with a bubble-priced house and mates in Spain does well out of this and good for her. But there has to be more to union than that.

    It seems to me that, ‘with per capita GDP’s similar to our own,’ is a rather big caveat here!

    Indeed, a lot of the people now screaming about how awful and racist and outside the spirit of the EU the UK is might do well to remember that the UK opened its borders to the A8 countries on day 1. Many of those states now hectoring the UK did not do so.

    So yes for me let’s have some free movement with your caveat. Very frankly I’m not altogether sure what is so liberal about free movement that in practice is not reciprocal in a meaningful way.

  • Joseph Bourke 23rd Sep '16 - 2:43pm


    I think the concept of free movement arrangements with small and medium-sized democracies with per capita GDP’s similar to our own is a good one – I might go further to include the larger democracies such as Canada and the USA.

    However, the point that Little Jackie Paper makes about reciprocity is key. Where there are roughly equal two way flows – there is unlikely to be much in the way of disruption to social cohesion e.g. the English speaking democracies – Australia, New Zealand, Canada etc are all retain close connections to the UK are do former colonies such as Malta, Cyprus and the West Indies. A similar reciprocity may be applied to most countries in Western Europe.

    Where migration/immigration flows are of approximate equal scale, it is much easier to argue for an open immigration policy.

    While we may lobby to remain in the EU, we do need to have a stance on managing what is the most likely position in 2020 i.e. a UK outside of the EU. By way of example, this may include a potential EU agreement that provides for Freedom of movement with individual EU states. when and only when economic convergence makes reciprocal arrangements with an individual state a practical possibility for both countries.

  • Little Jackie Paper 23rd Sep '16 - 4:01pm

    Joseph Bourke – ‘Where migration/immigration flows are of approximate equal scale, it is much easier to argue for an open immigration policy.’

    I’d agree. Much as many might wish it were otherwise, there is a bit of a numbers game here. I would add, of course, that there is more to migration than the EU.

    ‘While we may lobby to remain in the EU, we do need to have a stance on managing what is the most likely position in 2020 i.e. a UK outside of the EU. By way of example, this may include a potential EU agreement that provides for Freedom of movement with individual EU states. when and only when economic convergence makes reciprocal arrangements with an individual state a practical possibility for both countries.’

    Best case would probably be some sort of a Spain style crimp on free movement. More generally though I’d suspect that some sort of a distinction like the Swiss are looking at where the distinction between free movement of people and free movement of labour is sharper might be an approach to take.

    There is a wider discussion I think about the trade-off between open immigration from EU countries against more non-EU migration. But I’ll leave that can of worms alone here I think!

  • jedibeeftrix 23rd Sep '16 - 5:14pm

    in principle i agree.
    i’d like to see a system of immigration that does not skew the proportion of entrants such that half come from 7% of world population, with the other half from the remaining 90%.
    particularly so, when that 90% includes those nations with whom we have the closest social and cultural ties.
    the questions of numbers is quite a different question.

  • To me the issue isn’t so much free movement as it is the right to reside. The thing is the current model really only goes back to about 2004 and it is not like the controls before than were really that harsh or unreasonable. The sticking point for the EU is that it really isn’t about what free movement as it is about what free movement represents, which is European Citizenship. There probably is scope for free movement as a principle, but with an independent British framework for the rights of non resident workers.

  • Stevan Rose 23rd Sep '16 - 7:17pm

    Prior to the entry of Eastern European states into the EU I don’t recall free movement being a big issue and this is because there were no strong push-pull factors at play. I see no problem post-Brexit with the approach proposed. The issues over migration are about unsustainable net inward migration. However half of net inward migration is from outside the UK and always under our control.

  • Richard Bird 24th Sep '16 - 9:04am

    Sadly impractical. Listen to evidence to the Treasury Committee: (2 hours, well spent)

  • Richard Warren 24th Sep '16 - 11:45am

    Joseph Bourke and Little Jacky Paper

    Thanks for your comments. Yes, ensuring the numbers coming in are balanced by the numbers going out is essential if free movement is to be accepted by voters. I’m hoping that would be the case when dealing with countries like Australia, Singapore, Japan and others listed above in post and comments section, but yes, maybe a system that’s more structured towards achieving that goal would be needed.

  • Richard Warren 24th Sep '16 - 11:55am

    Andrew Hickey

    You make a fair point. And the government has been told repeatedly that membership of the single market must include free movement, because those are the rules. And yet, the government is clearly looking for ways to have that demand watered down. Ultimately, a compromise will have to be reached if Britain isn’t to swap the single market for trade tariffs, which I don’t think anyone outside UKIP wants. So, I’d speculate there’s room for negotiation. Indeed, the EU may be more amenable to us having the types of free trade/movement agreements with non-EU countries mentioned above in the article and comments section than to Britain ending free movement of EU citizens to UK.

  • Sue Sutherland 24th Sep '16 - 2:00pm

    The result of free EU movement has been to make it much more difficult for Brits married to non EU nationals to return to their home country to live, as Governments try to show they are clamping down on immigration. The mantra of “a points based system like Australia” was often repeated by the Leave campaign so wouldn’t it be a good idea for us to develop such a system in case we do leave the EU? This would, of course be based on our vision of a Lib Dem society and fairness. Free movement has consequences that weren’t anticipated when it was established. These consequences are damaging to the less wealthy countries as talented people leave them to do jobs in other countries, sometimes jobs for which they are overqualified because of the disparity in wages. Our health service relies on such people who have qualified in their own country but then come here to work. The balance of freedoms doesn’t necessarily come down on the side of EU policy and I wouldn’t be surprised if the EU looks again at this policy in the near future.

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