A one-time expat’s tale: how to control free movement

by Stewart Fleming | 21.02.2017

One of the mysteries of the Brexit debate ahead of the referendum was why David Cameron and the then home secretary Theresa May failed to point out that the British government has, under EU law, been in a position to “take control” of EU immigration in the same way as other member states have done.

A recent analysis by the Centre for European Reform points out: “No EU citizen has a fundamental, unlimited right to move freely across the EU. To be lawfully resident in another (EU) member state, EU citizens need to be working, studying or able to prove they are self-sufficient. Otherwise they can be kicked out.”

The CER also points out that “the European Court of Justice has confirmed the right of member-states to refuse supplementary pensions, unemployment benefits and child credits to non-working EU migrants.” As a result “the EU is moving towards less, not more, access to benefits for EU migrants, precisely at the time Britain is leaving.”

As an EU citizen who has, without a specific job to go to, crossed the borders of a member state in order to work, I can vouch for the accuracy of this assessment. Moving to Belgium in 2003 without employment, my wife and I were asked by officials whether we already had work in Belgium and, if not, how were we proposing to finance our stay.

We had to show documentation to prove we had an adequate income and so to demonstrate that we would not start trying to claim on the Belgian social security system. We had to get Belgian identity cards. We also had to register with the local commune. A week after renting an apartment we had a visit from the local police who were checking that we were actually living there.

Before being allowed to make use of the (excellent) Belgian health service, we also had to register with the state-sponsored health insurance scheme. When we used it we were required to pay, up front, a significant, income-based fee which was refunded in full only to those deemed too poor to pay. In order to get treatment we had to carry and present at the doctor’s, or at a hospital, a social security card, not just a national identity card. The card had a computer chip which showed what contributions we had made and therefore what payments we had to make.

Quite why the British government did not enforce some of these requirements, as other EU countries have, is puzzling. One answer is that the British, with their commitment to civil liberties, have never accepted the concept of a national identity card. Google, Facebook or Vodafone may know precisely where a British citizen is in the UK at any moment of time, but not the government.

As a result the UK leaves itself open to unmonitored immigration, legal and illegal, from all over the world, not just the EU. As the Observer reported last Sunday, the government has not collected the information, nor put in place the systems, which will be needed to decide which EU citizens now living in the UK will have the right to remain as part of any agreement reached in the Brexit negotiations.

The British themselves, governments of both parties, long ago decided not to “take control” of UK borders as EU law allowed them to. They did so in part because they did not want to face up to the political challenge of securing support for the introduction of a national identity card system or to spend the money setting up monitoring systems. So, in effect, the Brexit campaigners want to take us out of the EU in order to accomplish an objective much of which we could have achieved within it.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

6 Responses to “A one-time expat’s tale: how to control free movement”

  • One could wonder indeed at this apparent ignorance of the actual details of the Freedom of Movement Directive by the UK government. One can also wonder why the Press ( Daily Express, Mail, Sun and Daily Telegraph ) persistently tell lies about the EU? What are the possible financial benefits they hope to obtain from refusing to report honestly about the EU? The Tory Brexiteers have Europhbia in their DNA but the rest of the UK electorate’s attitude to the EU is largely based on the information or rather disinformation they obtain from the Press. Who stands to gain from the UK leaving the EU ? Obviously not the country as a whole as the future Brexit negotiations will show.

    • It’s not only border controls, but all across EU legislation that the govt has chosen not to exercise it’s power. As everyone who knows how the EU, and other European countries work, there is no one single ‘EU’ law that binds them all together exactly. In direct contrast to the nonsense peddled (and accepted wholesale by a large swathe of the UK public) every single piece of EU legislation is voted on, either accepted or rejected (strangely the fact that EU laws have been rejected by the Uk govt in toto did not feature in the referendum campaign) then debated, and finally passed to the Lords, committee and on to the statute books. Which is the case, while the process may be different, in every EU nation. Thus, German versions of a law, French versions of the same law, and ours may all have the same core, but the implementation may be very different – as in the above case.

      Sadly, as we are now on the way out of Europe, the debate on leaving was decided not by hard cold facts, but by cynical Tory politicians stirring up anti EU rhetoric, over a twenty year period, rhetoric which was taken up and amplified in the press, backed by utterly false claims about the EU’s ‘meddling’. On the other side, Labours left was ‘lukewarm’, to be generous to them, while the only pro EU members were the few real moderates, who vote against Article 50’s activation. The Blairite right, as ever, voted on a WIFM basis.

      As such, the public voted on emotional, utterly misguided beliefs, that were played on by a campaign that sought to bring out the disenfranchised, and hold up the EU as the embodiment of the ‘establishment’ that has made their lives a misery. The sad irony being, that is their own govt, not the EU, which as built in defences against such cynicism (hence the Tories want out – before someone finally challenged them at the ECHR) that has improvised them, and now, with Europe out of them way, has carte blanche to really go to town on them..

  • Stewart Fleming”s contribution about how to control free movement (in my country) of course attracted my immediate attention. I have never for the life of me, understood this reluctance of the Brits to have ID cards. It is a useful little piece of plastic that fits neatly in my wallet and now has a chip on it with data (only) the people who need to know have access to. I have had one since I was a little boy and I am very glad my grandson will soon have one because it will help trace down his parents if he gets lost. Never have I felt it was intruding on my freedom to come and go. The law regulates who can access the chip and limits the data that can be pooled with other sources. It just is what it is supposed to be: proof that I am who I pretend to be, going about my lawful business. And I am not convinced it is more democratic to use credit cards or drivers licenses, which in effect discriminate against the less wealthy. I remember discussing that with (unconvinced) Brits back in the eighties…
    And Steward’s point that in our internet age lots of people and businesses (honest or not) now have access to plenty more information on our private lives, spending habits etc, is irrefutable.

  • When my newly-we’d British wife settled in Amsterdam in 1985 we went to a local police station, filled out a few forms pertaining to the fact that I was responsible for her well-being and two weeks later she picked up her blue resident alien card and could go job-hunting. When I came to the U.K. The local police were flabbergasted to see me show up at all, which made me wonder how they kept track of my use or misuse of national benefits such as e.g. Health care. In the many rancorous discussions I had in the run-up to June 23rd 2016 I pointed this out to the many Brexiteers using the misuse of facilities argument as the reason to want to take back control. Needless to say it was no use. To me Brexit, clueless and based on lies and ignorance as it is, is simply an expression of the ancient dislike of foreigners that a substantial amount of the population still feels, added to which there is the wish to live in an important and respected nation. Especially the second is a mite pitiful in the light of the way in which May and Johnson continue to brass off the very people they wanted Brexit goodies from.

  • I too have lived in Belgium for many years and have admired their system of registration which seems very fair and efficient. It is also the case that you can only ask for and be entitled to social housing if you have lived in that same commune for 10 years which means that residents contribute first in their taxes before they can request any benefit.
    Theresa May spent six years at the Home Office and so had plenty of time to control immigration both outside and inside the EU if she had wished to. I have to conclude that she was either incompetent or politically unwilling to act.
    On a recent ‘Any Questions’ programme, Douglas Carswell MP seemed ignorant of EU rules relating to freedom of movement to work. He hadn’t realised that if an EU citizen failed to find work after 3 months and couldn’t support themselves, then they would be unable to claim any benefits (e.g. in Belgium would be de-registered.) He said in a reply to Lord Dubs, “If the EU was as your Lordship described it, perhaps we wouldn’t have voted to leave it.” Doh!
    (Directive 2004/38/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004)

  • Immigration was not the only issue for those voting for Brexit. My main reason was to take back control of our own destiny and not to be ruled by an unelected elite in Brussels. The single market is good but not at any price. If we can’t negotiate a reasonable deal so be it and both sides will be the poorer but we can then go and make our own deals with individual European countries and countries from around the world!