Opinion: Freedom to travel and work is the essence of the EU and we should embrace it

Another week, another attack on EU citizens living and working in the UK. This time it didn’t come from that familiar old grouch Nigel Farage, but from the Prime Minister himself. In a speech which was clearly playing catch-up with UKIP after the Eastleigh by-election, David Cameron ratcheted up the rhetoric, calling for new curbs on the rights of EU migrants to claim British benefits and social housing. He wants to stop our benefit system being a ‘soft touch’ and end the ‘something for nothing culture’, in language which could have been copy-pasted from any front page of the Daily Express.

But on migration, just like on the wider issue of our EU membership, Mr Cameron seems to be making policy based on perceptions, not on facts. His audience is not the country, but his own backbenchers – busy sharpening knives behind his back since the Tories trailed in third at Eastleigh – and the swing voters who risk denying them their seats in 2015. And just like in the EU debate, it is contingent on us as Liberal Democrats – and members of the government – to give conservatives a robust reality check.

To start with, the issue is not one of immigration but of free movement. Every British citizen enjoys the same rights to travel freely and live in another EU country as any other EU citizen – be it to study, work or retire. Free movement is a two-way street from which we in the UK benefit as much as anyone. The best estimates suggest there are around 1.7 million Brits living in other EU countries and around 2.3 million other EU citizens in Britain.

Likewise, people often move temporarily. While some might decide to stay for the long term, many others are simply looking for a job, learning a language, or gaining experience. Many Poles who came to Britain after 2004 have since headed home – not least because the Polish economy is currently in far better shape than Britain’s and now attracts immigrants of its own.

One of the biggest ironies of the current debate is that today’s situation is a direct consequence of the Britain’s two biggest EU achievements: the Single Market and expansion of the EU to the new democracies of central and eastern Europe. How can we espouse free market access and trade across Europe while erecting barriers to people? And how can we now put up a no entry sign to countries we pushed the EU to admit in the first place?

Crucially, from employment to benefits, the weight of evidence points to the positive contribution made by EU mobile workers in Britain:

The latest Lib Dem Voice polling of Party members found that 72% believe migration from eastern Europe has benefited Britain while the same number say the UK should welcome Bulgarian and Romanian citizens here. Opinion polls show that people in the UK broadly agree that free movement brings overall benefits to the British economy. It’s time for Lib Dems to lead from the front in making the case for free movement in the EU and to base this crucial debate on facts.

* Giles Goodall is a Lib Dem European Parliamentary Candidate for South East England.

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  • This wasn’t an “attack on EU citizens working in the UK”. It was an attack on EU citizens coming to the UK and not working. Regardless of any positive contribution in total from immigration, please explain why we should pay benefits (funded by working UK citizens and working immigrants) to immigrants who come here and are not able to support themselves.

  • @Julian – one could argue, why should hard-pressed taxpayers in, say, Spain pay to provide medical care to drunk Brits who get themselves in trouble on the Costa del Sol, or what about the drag on their health system caused by all those elderly Brits who retire out there? Personally I like things just as they are; yes, a tiny number of foreigners will claim benefits, but we are better off overall and we have just the same rights in their countries too.

  • Giles Goodall 27th Mar '13 - 2:51pm

    EU migrants are not automatically entitled to claim benefits in the UK. If they are looking for work theycan receive unemployment benefit from their HOME country for up to 3 months, extendable to 6 months, but not from the HOST country. Those who are in work or self-employed can apply for benefits like housing benefit of income support on the same basis as any other (UK) worker. If they come to the UK unemployed, they are NOT eligible for these benefits, but on the contrary have to prove they have sufficient resources to support themselves.

    As you rightly point out, those migrants working in the UK of course also contribute to paying for social security as a whole through their taxes (and in fact pay in more on average than native Brits do)

  • Excellent article Giles.

    It is so important to keep communicating the actual facts about the impact of EU migration to counter the daily flood of half-truths and downright distortions that are banded about so freely by the tabloids and UKIP.

  • Thanks for an excellent article. It’s great to see a bit of common sense on this issue and a recognition that freedom of movement in the EU has huge benefits for British people.

  • David Allen 27th Mar '13 - 4:23pm

    OK, a small majority in the UK do agree that “free movement brings overall benefits to the British economy”. However, this question of course muddles together two things – the right to travel freely for short-term business, holidays or temporary work, and the right to move permanently. There would not be much disagreement that the right to travel freely is an unalloyed good. The question phrasing “free movement” would seem to imply short-term travel rather than long-term migration. So this careful wording may very well have improved the score in favour.

    But even for those respondents who did think in terms of long term migration, the phrasing of the question is important. It was a factual question “does migration bring overall benefits to the British economy”? There is a factual answer, and it is yes. As Giles comments, there are lots of economic studies out there which tell us that immigration has benefited our economy. So the only people who would answer “no” to the question are, in fact, those who don’t listen to the news, and those who are quite happy to dispute known facts! Not surprising, then, that they were not (quite) a majority.

    There is a different question to be asked, and that is “has immigration benefited you personally”? That is a question which would reveal a class divide. The comfortable middle class are delighted to employ good Polish plumbers and sample interesting Polish food from the shop which they can drive to. They gain from the overall economic benefits. The indigenous working class, however, may find that the Polish plumbers have taken away all their business and left them unemployed. Also, since they can’t or don’t want to drive everywhere, they may not be so happy if the nearest pub they can walk to has become Polish.

    If we are completely blind to that point of view, we will suffer for our blindness at the ballot box!

  • @Giles Goodall. “Those who are in work or self-employed can apply for benefits like housing benefit of income support …”.

    Isn’t this precisely the problem? Someone who comes to this country to work and who has never paid taxes here, costs us money. You could also add that they are entitled to child benefit for any children they have even if those children are in their home country, as was recently reported.

    @Stuart, if poor Spaniards are having through their taxes to support wealthy British pensioners who need medical care in Spain, isn’t that wrong too.

    If all these things balanced out and similar numbers of Brits emigrated to Romania and Spain as Romanians and Spanish in the opposite direction, no one would mind. However, we have people from poor countries with lower levels of social welfare than us, coming here to take advantage. Who can blame them? However, it is not our responsibility to support people from other countries through our taxes.

  • David,
    can you define the difference between temporary and pemanent?

    Does having a job and paying taxes, being a member of the local community, raising kids and voting in local elections mean you are a permanent resident?

    Does returning after 20 years living in a foreign country mean you were only temporary?

  • @Oranjepan re: temporary and permanent residence

    A very good question, particularly as the distinction (if needed) needs to be made as we go along ie. more on a year-by-year basis rather than after 10, 20 or more years.

  • Giles Goodall 27th Mar '13 - 11:57pm

    @Julian: The point is that those people are working and therefore contributing to social security through their taxes – why should they then be denied contributory benefits? If they aren’t working they can’t get them – which puts paid to the ‘benefit scrounger myth’.

  • Orangepan,

    Pedantically speaking, you obviously have a point. There is no perfect way to discriminate between a “temporary” or a “permanent” arrangement. That doesn’t stop people routinely talking about a job being temporary or permanent, however!

    In practice, immigration control obviously requires the definition of an arbitrary cut-off time, such as three months, to distinguish visitors who can visit freely from migrants who may be subject to controls.

    You seem to think this distinction is a problem of some kind. Can you explain what sort of problem you think it is, please?

  • @Giles. People who are receiving benefits like housing or income support are not funding those benefits through any small contributions they make through tax and NI. You call them “contributory benefits”, which highlights the main issue. Someone coming here and claiming these benefits straight away hasn’t contributed anything towards them and isn’t doing so. Why is it so unreasonable to expect people who come here to make a net contribution to the UK. If either of us went the US or Australia or any other country, we’d be expected to show that we’d be able to support ourselves and our families. Why should it be different for people coming here?

  • Yet again I find myself in complete disagreement with opinions of those on the ultra-liberal left of the party.

    The very fact that the UK supports 50,000 children resident abroad with benefits worth £50m a year is proof that this is not an imaginary problem, but a very real one.

    We need a complete reset on all the rules regarding entitlement to housing, benefits, health etc. to make sure that only genuine long term UK residents and citizens receive them and the rest do not. This is not racism or xenophobia. It is just plain common sense and to do otherwise discredits the very basis on which we provide now very scarce resources to support the UK population’s basic needs.

    I am an egalitarian at heart, but I believe the UK should provide for its own first and others very much second. Nowadays, for many very good reasons including social cohesion and limited funds, we cannot afford to do otherwise.

  • “might I suggest to you that, before you get too excited, you ask yourself what the cost to the UK public finances would be if the Mediterranean countries in the EU took the same view and withheld healthcare benefits from the large number of UK pensioners living there”

    Hmm. Yes I have asked myself and I’ve come to the conclusion that the net effect would be about zero if we did the same the EU citizens using the NHS in the UK. Not that I am suggesting we do, mind you. The point here is that in terms of health treatment, there is some reciprocity. When it comes to other aspects like benefits and housing, I think you will find it hard to come up with examples where UK citizens would be able to obtain the same advantages in other European countries as their citizens do when they come here.

    “You may perceive yourself to be egalitarian, but your language isn’t, and nor is your notion of ‘local benefits for local people’. ”

    Please, don’t indulge in transparent parody of my arguments. All I said was that the UK government exists primarily to defend the best interests of the UK and its citizens. The idea that this is “cutting off my nose to spite my face” is quite strange.

    I want the UK government to use its currently extremely scarce benefit, housing and other resources to help its own least fortunate citizens first before those of other countries. The fact that you and other people posting here find this an unacceptable stance goes to show how convoluted some of the Europhile thinking has become.

  • @RC

    The UK has made the decision to agree with a common set of EU benefits and obligations. Some of these will obviously be more of a benefit and some of them will obviously be more of an obligation. There is no “pick and choose” option on offer from the other member states about this.

    If you go down the road of “We want reciprocity” you end up with a nightmare bureacratic accounting situation and lots of the member states might well conclude that in the case of, let’s say, banking the UK is winning far more than it is losing.

    Perhaps more fundamentally, if you have a GENUINE – not fraudulent – welfare need, the question should be “Why should an EU citizen EVER have to worry about getting welfare within the EU?” There may be a case for the member states to have cut off rules for “temporary” and “permanent” residents but that should be a behind the scenes accounting issue not something the citizen ever has to face particularly as, when it comes to collecting taxes, member states tend to extremely quick to classify a new arrival as being a “permanent” resident for tax payment purposes.

  • Philip Royle 28th Mar '13 - 4:12pm

    I have a good idea. Why don’t immigrants bring their benefits with them. Thats to say a Romanian immigrant has to apply to their own social security system for support whilst searching for work in the UK.
    Doesn’t that sound fair. I mean it would encourage member states to improve the welfare systems of their own countries, yes? Any one know if Bulgaria has job seekers allowance for UK citizens who wish to immigrate there? Or better still if a Spanish immigrant come to the UK they can only get what they would lawfully get in Spain whilst looking for work, yes?

  • @David

    My first thoughts were with respect to those who require visa’s to enter Britain, who are effectively classified through their visa. However, there are a large number people who don’t need visa’s or have indefinite leave to remain and hence such distinctions are harder to draw, other than to perhaps say if they continue to hold a non-UK passport their stay should probably be classified as temporary – however, this also falls down as I know of people who have retained foreign passports but are settled and full intend to remain here, as it facilitates their entry into their home country when visiting parents and relatives.

  • David Allen 28th Mar '13 - 7:04pm


    I suppose what you are saying is that, if EU visitors can come here on holiday and then decide to stay, then it is hard to impose any sort of immigration control. And if they can’t come here on holiday without needing some form of visa or visa waiver which includes a declaration that it’s just a temporary visit, then it isn’t free movement, and that would of course cause much resentment.

    I don’t have a very good answer, except to say that in my scheme of things, we would not try to prevent free movement throughout the EU unless we thought we had a specific problem. If we had an upsurge in mass migration from Poland in the past, or from Romania (or Turkey?) in the future, we could announce the introduction of a specific quota barrier, e.g. something fewer than half a million people from the same nation in the same year. At that point, we would then have to require visas or the like for declared holidayers, as well as declared immigrants, from the quota-barrier nation.

    I do see that there are pitfalls here and that we could be accused of iliberal behaviour. However, it would only be done (by me, anyway!) in cases where we really were at risk of a massive inflow, and where there was no big problem forcing people out of the source nation. So we wouldn’t impose visas etc except on the quota-barrier nation.

    We have to show people that we are alive to their concerns – and for me, this is a much better way to do it than the sort of punitive DailyMailophilic measures Clegg is touting!

  • Michael Parsons 29th Mar '13 - 12:03am

    Try tellng it to the Cypriots! can’t even bring a few euros with them! What a farce. By the way, the jolly old Bank of England has stated that it would levy our ‘protected’ accounts to recapitalise a big bank (like HSBC) if it got further into trouble. A few money-transfer controls and forget moving to Spain! or vice-versa, once the EU takes another bite beyond the Pyrenees.
    People living under (EU) castles in the air must beware of falling rubbish.

  • I would like to use these

    Of the estimated 2 million migrants from central and eastern member states since 2004, fewer than 1% has actually claimed jobseeker’s allowance in the UK.
    EU migrants help to subsidise Britain, paying in about 30% more in taxes than they cost our public services. They are also far less likely to claim benefits and tax credits, or to live in social housing.
    A study last year found that the presence of Polish children in the UK’s schools has even helped to boost British pupils’ grades.

    Can you source them please?

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