It must be possible to be 100% pro-EU, but still question how things are run


I’m half Danish and consider myself to be a European. I have never really felt particularly English or British at all and if Denmark is playing England at football it’s a tough call, even though I’ve lived in the UK almost all my life and spent a total of only two years in Denmark.

I have always been pro-EU. I believe in political co-operation and the European ideal – and have often considered other European countries to be more enlightened when it comes to matters such as social justice and environmental protection. Without the EU, I am sure we wouldn’t have had Blue Flag beaches or the equivalent, tighter car emission regulations (although they’ve been flouted badly in recent years) and proper food labelling. Whereas, in my experience, Danish Governments of whatever shade tend to want to ensure the quality of life and wellbeing of their populations, that enlightened approach sadly hasn’t been a particularly strong feature of British life – although it does appear to be something Scotland wants to follow (hence no tuition fees and prescription charges).

Whilst agreeing with the provisions of the Single Market in terms of the free movement of goods, service and people, this doesn’t stop me asking certain questions about the efficacy of the EU and what we might be able to do better. All institutions need to adapt and evolve to changing circumstances and the EU cannot be an exception to that.

So, with a shortage of affordable housing, severe pressure on GP services, a lack of primary school places in some areas, a transport infrastructure under severe strain, and population growth which is having an impact on the natural environment and resource use, common sense tells me that the rules on the free movement of people might need some modification in the UK’s particular circumstances.

I believe that people coming to the UK should have access to the same benefits from day one, rather than this being linked to the time a person is resident in the UK; to do otherwise goes against the concept of equal treatment. But I also feel that it would be reasonable to say that we should be able to introduce, at least temporarily, some restrictions on the number of people coming into the UK so that we can ensure that our infrastructure, essential services and housing provision keeps pace with an increasing population. In that way we could also take in more refugees – which we should definitely be doing.

A key problem is that much of the UK workforce lacks the necessary language skills to be able to work in the rest of Europe, whereas graduates and others from the EU have really good language skills, enabling them to work in even high-level occupations here, so when it comes to the free movement of workers, there isn’t really a level playing field. For example, in the year to September 2015, while an estimated 250,000 EU citizens migrated to the UK, just 85,000 emigrated abroad. That suggests free movement isn’t really working properly.

Even whilst being 100% pro EU membership, with all the economic, social and cultural benefits it brings, not being able to temporarily put some limit on the free movement of people for environmental reasons, or because of severe pressure on essential services, suggests to me that the EU institutions are not capable of responding flexibly to special circumstances. The same could be said for state aid to assist ailing industries. If the EU is to thrive in the long term, does it not need to develop greater flexibility in the way Treaty rules are applied?

* Judy Abel has worked in the health policy field for around 15 years, including at the British Medical Association, for the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group, and in policy roles at Asthma UK, the Neurological Alliance and Versus Arthritis until the end of 2021. She was also the Constituency Office Manager and Senior Caseworker for former Lib Dem MP, Sir Simon Hughes from 2012 to 2014. All views are her own.

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  • Bill le Breton 25th Apr '16 - 3:36pm

    What’s the connection between the EU and the Liberal Democrats?

    Both are on the brink of an existential crisis.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 25th Apr '16 - 3:38pm


    I , like you am of a mixed European heritage, half Italian and partly Irish , yet unlike you , I have since I can remember, felt very British , and an Englishman too ! I never hear an anthem other than ours that does it for me , and have no divided loyalties.I am a patriotic British , internationalist , citizen of the world !

    I have only a fraction of your faith in the EU and am in the very middle, with regular need of thinking on the issue to decide.I believe our party is too pro EU, despite our party policy being for significant reform , and ALDE being full of reformers , we rarely hear much of it ! I want a more Liberal , flexible , more democratic, participatory , less meddlesome , regulatory EU.

    I believe the free movement to have reached its sell by date , so we can concentrate on allowing those who desperately need to come here , like refugees , and those we definitely need to come here , like key sector workers we lack .It is not going to be possible in a hurray , staying in an unreformed EU.

    If our party and ALDE could and would , bother , to convince me and the wider referendum electorate , that real , proper reform is possible , I would vote remain for sure .As it is I am not convinced.

  • Nice one Lorenzo (see DC’s “renogitation”.

  • Thanks for comments – recovering from flu so not able to make too many comments!

    I was trying to say that Europe has brought the citizens of the UK improvements we could only have dreamed of if we had not been in the EU, especially when it comes to environmental improvements and social benefits. I was also trying to say, though, that we need greater flexibility in applying some of the rules where countries are clearly struggling. I think you actually all agreed with that!

    If we are a European ‘family’ we cannot just ignore the needs of individual members just so we can uphold rules written, in principle, 50 years ago. We need a more flexible approach – even Jean-Claude Juncker has raised concerns.

    But we shouldn’t throw out something that has generally worked well in generating reciprocity, peace, prosperity and progress. The EU just needs to adapt.

  • David Allen 25th Apr '16 - 6:12pm

    I wonder if we can do something about this general problem – That many people do not really want to leave the EU, but are reluctant to vote “Remain”, because they don’t want to appear to give unqualified approval to a badly flawed institution. They don’t want to “appease the Eurocrats”, in Bill le Breton’s phrase. But if they sit on their hands on June 23rd, they could see us sleepwalking into Farageland.

    Could we offer an unofficial third alternative, via a petition campaign for example, along the lines of “I’m voting to remain in the EU – but I’m calling for reform”?

    A big petition along such lines would have two effects. First, it would make it clear that nobody should be dancing up and down claiming that a “Yes” vote shows that Europe is totally wonderful. Second, it would also encourage people who have signed the petition to go ahead and vote Remain in the actual referendum.

  • If the UK remains in the EU, what will the EU look like in 10-20 years time and what will the UK’s role be – anyway know in any particular detail?

  • The EU has produced enlightened laws, such as product safety legislation, and enabled people to travel freely and work abroad easily; we take these benefits for granted now. The thought of us all returning to nation states again is very regressive, but I agree with you David that there needs to be a more honest discussion about continuing to pursue reform.

    I have no issue at all with the number of people coming to the UK from the EU (I enjoy the diversity) but do worry about the environmental impact of rapid population growth and about the impact on health and transport services (where there is one).

    Sorting out a problem is better than running away form it – because that just creates another set of problems!

  • @Out OF Eu – If the UK Leaves the EU, what will the UK look like in 10-20 years time and what will the UK’s role be – do you know in any particular detail? I strongly suspect not.

  • @Roland Agree. We need to stay in to shape the future. If we come out we will become an irrelevant backwater on the edge of Europe.

  • @David Allen – I think you have hit a real problem, the UKIP/Brexit campaign effectively hijacked the open discontent with the operation of “Brussels”, it’s democratic accountability and the way in which Westminster was happily transferring ‘sovereignty’ to Brussels without consulting the UK electorate, into an Out campaign. Remain does have to show that real reform is on the agenda to show that the EU of tomorrow isn’t just more of yesterdays EU…

  • Real reform is not on the agenda. It hasn’t been offered now when we might leave, and it certainly won’t be if we vote to stay. In any case, admit it; we as a Party like the anti-democratic structure of the EU – it allows ideas we like to be foisted on a UK public that would never vote for them in a month of Sundays if they were UK-only competences and we put forward the same suggestions in our Manifesto.

  • Simon Banks 26th Apr '16 - 9:44am

    The EU was” imposed on most of the peoples of Europe”? Which countries joined against the wishes of their people?

  • “Real reform is not on the agenda. It hasn’t been offered now when we might leave, and it certainly won’t be if we vote to stay.”

    I do understand those feelings. The EU, somewhat like the US, has a gridlocked federal structure which is institutionally resistant to change. Perhaps we need a new technology – Political engineering – to analyse malfunctioning governmental systems and design flexibility back into them.

    Nevertheless, I think the comment may be too pessimistic. The likely referendim result, a narrow win for Remain, will leave Europe’s leaders in no doubt that their edifice is teetering and that reform will be needed if it is to continue to survive. The question is whether they have the capability to engineer the necessary reforms.

  • Graham Jones 26th Apr '16 - 10:53am

    Really like to open up the discussion about the effect of EU migration on services and infrastructure. Can we begin to get some empirical data, locally and officially generated and testable, into the picture that supports the argument that free movement results in negative pressures? I’m governor at a school where 75% of pupils have English as an Additional Language, but we are undersubscribed. (Few are children of academics, I should add; most are from families with non-EU migratory backgrounds). I’ve had non-emergency GP and hospital appointments in the last 12 months but had no sense of having to wait. Oxford has a housing crisis, but that’s to do with issues (land availability top of the list) that have little if any connection with EU migration. Once we can replace anecdote and impression with hard, testable data from independent sources, we can begin a cost/benefit analysis that also factors evidence that additional workers in an ageing population pay for the services supposedly under pressure – not just their maintenance but also their expansion and improvement. We can also examine the possibility that where negative pressure is demonstrable and quantifiable, the blame lies with underperforming public management that fails to forecast and respond, rather than the tax-paying migrant workers themselves.

  • “The EU was” imposed on most of the peoples of Europe”? Which countries joined against the wishes of their people?” – when did almost any? Take the UK – who ever asked us in a referendum (not the “Common Market”, of course)?

  • @ Graham Really agree with what you are saying and don’t think we should see people as a benefit just because they increase GDP etc. The key point I was trying to make is that there isn’t really a free movement level playing field (as I said because of language skills etc) and given this, we might run into trouble at some point. For this reason, I was trying to say,in exceptional circumstances, we might need to relax the rules on an absolute right to free movement.

  • David Allen 26th Apr '16 - 8:23pm

    Judy’s point about free movement is important. We know that the EU is very reluctant to concede that there could be any permanent barriers to movement. The reasons why seem to be an odd mixture. Eastern Europeans want the economic opportunities for their migrating citizens, Western Europeans just like to whizz across national borders for business or leisure whenever they feel like it, and idealistic Europeans think Europe will never reach ever-closer union if it has hard borders. None of them seem to be thinking about what might happen in an emergency situation, for example when Xitler wins the Ruritanian (i.e. an EU nation) election and persecutes his Elbonian minority, and suddenly we have an internal refugee crisis. This despite the living example of an external refugee crisis, which has had all the European leaders pushing the panic buttons and preventing free movement of refugees!

    Now, I’m not arguing that in that emergency, the right thing to do would be to leave five million Elbonians to the tender mercies of Mr Xitler. I am arguing that we, and all the other EU nations, should have the option of pushing the panic button and temporarily shutting the borders. After all, it might not be the best thing for the Elbonians to let Mr Xitler dump them on their European neighbours. It might be better for the EU to get tough with Mr Xitler, and bring him into line, and that might mean preventing him expelling his minorities. It would be better to have a defined, accepted set of criteria for pushing the panic button than the situation we see now with Syrian refugees, i.e. everybody makes it up as they go along and anarchy prevails.

    Importantly, whilst the EU has set its face against permanent barriers, it might just be possible to argue successfully that temporary barriers are more acceptable. That, in turn, would assuage the fears of those who can accept net immigration, but don’t want a sudden flood.

  • @David. Thanks. Yes, I would see derogations to the free movement rules as being something that would be exceptional but possible within an agreed framework. I also think that if our economy wasn’t so London-centric, a better spread of newcomers would relieve the pressure on the capital’s transport and other services.

    We also urgently need to improve out young people’s language skills so they can go abroad and free movement for employment becomes a reality for us too (other than for travel).

    It would be a shame if the EU founders because it cannot adapt, especially after all it has achieved.

  • Graham Jones 27th Apr '16 - 9:33am

    Missing from the list of reasons for free movement is the citizen’s right to move freely. I am proud to be a citizen of the European Union and to be able to exercise that right. As a citizen I also have the right to expect to be treated without discrimination. Our level playing field isn’t just about trade. Temporary border restrictions are already possible and indeed currently in force on some borders. However, a return to permanent closure would be retrograde in so many ways, actually encouraging the Xitlers in the first place. Let’s not forget, by the way, those many, many people whose daily lives are made easier because they live in border areas, with shops and jobs closer on the other side than they are on their own.

  • @ Graham. I agree. The right to move and settle freely within Europe is something we now all take for granted, but can it be completely laissez faire, without reference to the environmental and infrastructural impacts? I don’t know the answer, I’m just posing the question?

  • David Allen 27th Apr '16 - 1:03pm

    I’m arguing for temporary rather than permanent restrictions (a) because there is no current prospect of the EU conceding the latter, and (b) because the specific fear of a sudden massive influx is legitimate, not intrinsically racist, and merits guarding against. If the definition of “massive” was set very high, i.e. such that a nation could shut the borders against a prospective inflow of millions rather than thousands, then it might just be a provision that the EU might be persuaded to agree to.

    The question of permanent restrictions is difficult, however. We have permanent restrictions against immigration from Rwanda, Syria, Myanmar, China. Might those restrictions encourage leaders in some of these countries to oppresss their populations? Should we then invite all the millions of Syrians to flee the bombs and hole up in Cromer? Difficult question!

    The EU, much encouraged by Britain in fact, has pushed to admit more and more countries outside the relatively prosperous Western Europe, and closer to Syria. Sooner or later one might expect something comparable the Syrian disaster to develop in an EU member country. When that happens, the EU will have to deal with it. The EU refuses to think about such things and has no contingency plans in place.

    The Outers look at this risk, and they simply want to steer clear. That is not irrational. The Inners often appear to close their eyes and evade the issue by charging the Outers with racism. That will not do, and I say that as an “Inner”.

  • The main thing is that we stay in the EU, and much like a good family, work out common solutions together. We have achieved too much real good to throw it all away.

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