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Free movement means we can’t control our borders, right?

by Luke Lythgoe | 23.03.2016

EU membership requires free movement of people and that means the UK no longer has control of its borders. At least that’s what eurosceptics like Nigel Farage would have people believe. They’ve done a brilliant job muddling the issues. This makes concerns such as terrorism and the refugee crisis feel even more threatening as a result of EU membership. But the two issues are different.

Farage said, following the Brussels bombings, that EU border rules led to “the free movement of terrorists, of criminal gangs and of Kalashnikovs“.  

It’s not just UKIP’s boss who muddles the issues. Vote Leave, which is vying with a Farage-backed group to be the official Leave campaign, says on its website that free movement of people means the UK has “almost no control over who enters Britain from Europe” and makes it “much harder to fight terrorism”.

We control our borders

Despite what Brexiteers say, Britain doesn’t need to “reclaim control of its borders”. Anyone who wants to enter the UK still needs to present a passport or a national identity card issued by a EEA country for security checks by the UK Border Force.

This differs from our EU partners in the Schengen Area, where internal border checks between countries have largely been abolished. The UK has an opt out from the Schengen Area and will never be obliged to join.

One thing that has helped muddle the issue is the migration crisis focussed on Syria, which has led to much talk of Europe’s “leaky borders”. But, in fact, these are the Schengen Area’s leaky borders. The UK’s control of its own borders means that, despite more than one million migrants entering Schengen in 2015, few have reached the UK. The camps in Calais are testament to how difficult it is for irregular non-EU migrants to enter Britain.

Even media organisations who strive for impartiality helped muddle this issue at the height of the migration crisis by using the short-hand “Europe” when Schengen is more accurate (see these BBC, Reuters and FT headlines).

Eurosceptics blame open borders for recent terrorist atrocities. This partly holds true for the Paris attacks. But any jihadi attempting to enter the UK will be checked. Whether they will be apprehended is down to British border officials, not the EU. That would be true if we quit the EU too. Key to catching potential terrorists at the border is intelligence, and the UK will find it easier to cooperate on EU-wide counter-intelligence by remaining in the EU.

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Free movement is different

Free movement of people is different from border-free travel inside Schengen or, indeed, Schengen’s leaky external borders. It is a fundamental principle of the EU, which does apply to Britain. It allows EU nationals to work without a permit, reside, look for a job and enjoy equal treatment to other citizens in another EU member state. These are not refugees fleeing civil war in Syria or economic migrants from outside Europe.

People can argue whether the UK should give Poles, Italians and Swedes rights to work and live in Britain. InFacts argues that on balance the economic argument is in Britain’s favour. It’s also a two-way street, with many Brits enjoying the same rights elsewhere in the EU.

Some eurosceptics, such as Iain Duncan Smith and Liam Fox, argue that today’s Schengen’s leaky borders could become tomorrow’s free movement of refugees or even terrorists. The most extreme suggestion is that a jihadi could lie low in a Schengen country for several years, get citizenship and then bomb the UK. InFacts has already argued that such a plot seems overly elaborate and long-winded.

This article was corrected on 7 April to include EEA national ID cards as a form of documentation for entering the UK.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

8 Responses to “Free movement means we can’t control our borders, right?”

  • Even if terrorists disguised as refugees were to lie low in an EU country for the many years it takes to gain citizenship, then travel with their EU citizenship to the UK we would still check them at our borders. One of the (few) good points about Cameron’s negotiations and agreement was the strengthening of member states (particularly the UK as we are outside of Shengen) ability to refuse entry to any EU citizne who might pose a threat to the UK. With the right intelligence being shared about those moving between the mainland and the UK (intelligence easier to share and manage if we are in the EU) we can ensure that anyone who may pose a risk can be kept outside.

    Of course this doesn’t remove the problem for us anyway. If we leave we are still bound by the UN charter on refugees to provide snactuary. Outside the EU we will no longer be a part of the agreement that says refugees should be processed in the country they arrive in. Refugees who make it to our border are our problem, not the rest of Europes’. In this case we still have the issue of trying to work out who amongst the many many many desperate and genuine refugees seeking sanctuary may possibly be a terrorist. This is far more of a concern than assuming some may hide out for up to ten years in Europe just to strike at the UK. Not that this should stop us from carrying out our moral (and legal) duty to help refugees in need.

  • Does Britain’s membership of the EU remove our right to decide who may and may not enter the country? Yes.
    Does EU membership place British nationals under the rule of foreign lawmakers, who are unaccountable to the British people? Yes.
    Britain has been a democratic self-governing nation for hundreds of years. Has she made a success of this, without being a member of the EU? Yes.
    Do other EU members have as long a history of uninterrupted self-governance and democracy? No.

  • One of the main problems with the European Referendum has been the difficulty of reducing what is a very complex political and economic relationship to a level of debate simple enough for ordinary folk to participate in meaningfully without reducing debate to ’tis-tisn’t’ levels. Let’s be honest, it’s not really a very good idea is it – the equivalent of holding a referendum on whether or not Dark Matter actually exists. Answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a question is appropriate when it’s a very simple question. ‘Is your tooth hurting?’ can be answered simply ‘Yes’ without reference to exactly what you mean by ‘tooth’. ‘Is the Earth flat?’ No. Simple answer, but not many people could explain exactly how we can prove that. So with the Referendum. One problem I have with Brexit, illustrated splendidly by Jon Wheeler’s response, is a tendency to make over-simplified statements and ask over-simplified questions that can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’, preferably in their favour. He doesn’t inform the debate, he doesn’t illuminate it, he doesn’t bring out the actual complexities, positives and negatives of being in the EU. It’s as if he sees membership of the EU as the equivalent of having toothache – perhaps a fair analogy to some people, but hardly helpful. His lack of clarity is best illustrated in the statement -‘Britain has been a Democratic self-governing nation for hundreds of years’. In fact we won’t be celebrating the centenary of women’s partial emancipation until 2018, and full emancipation until 2028, so genuinely democratic for less than 100 years then. But perhaps in Jon Wheeler’s perception of Britain women don’t matter?

    • I don’t think simplfying the complex argument of EU membership is made any easier when David Cameron (whom I would like to think is far better informed than the man on the street) cannot even agree amongst members of his own party to display a united front – which to me in itself suggests that the long, drawn out EU relationship is disintegrating. This political in-fighting has created the breeding ground for mud slinging on both sides, be it in Parliament or the local pub. The fact is, no-one knows what a Brexit (or indeed remaining in the EU) will mean for the future of this country….what we do know (and can state in simple terms) is that the EU is failing it’s members nations, especially it’s most prosperous ones. That much is undeniable.

      The fact is, short of writing a thesis on the subject, any comment on the so-called Brexit will appear over-simplified to someone….all that can be done is to boil the argument down to it’s base elements, which I think was Jon’s point.

  • Even UK citizens are controlled at our borders. What is all this utter nonsense about?
    It’s a total non-question.

  • Jon Wheeler’s knowledge of history is a bit sketchy . If you define democratic government as the right of all citizens to vote then the UK is a bit behind the French and the Germans . Universal Suffrage ( votes for all males ) was not achieved in this country until 1918 ( Representation of the People Act 1918 ) . Some categories of females were given the vote under this legislation . It was not until 1928 that all women were given the vote . In Germany all males regardless of social status were given the vote in 1871 on the creation of the German Empire ( previously ‘Germany’ consisted of a large number of states of different sizes and different systems of government ) . All females were granted the vote in 1919 . France gave all males the vote in 1875 but took a bit longer to recognize women’s right to vote . We also have in this country something which the ‘leavers’ are always claiming ( wrongly) is a feature of the EU : government by unelected and unaccountable lawmakers . We have that too : it’s called the House of Lords !

  • If we cannot control our borders then we should stop calling ourselves as a nation. Hungary, Austria, Denmark etc have already closed their borders to non EU migrants. However EU wants to impose fines of €114,000 per migrant for not taking in migrants. UK seems to have a veto on such a compulsion from the EU. Also UK is not in the Schengen region so these migrant do not have a right to come to UK when they enter EU. However, in 4 years when these get their stay in another EU nation there is nothing stopping them coming to UK. Almost all of them have some knowledge of English but have no knowledge of any other EU languages. Majority of them do not have any skills and UK needs to provide housing, provide funds, provide health in priority to the locals.
    Free movement has created an influx of migrants from poorer EU nations who are wiling to work for the minimum wage even for skilled labour thus keeping our wages low. Most of these are unskilled and will not contribute to UK until they earn 23k plus pa when tax credits and child benefits are taken account of. For every adult there are at least 2 dependents who need to be provided housing health and schooling. Whatever UK puts into NHS disappears down a black hole. To make the NHS functional again reducing the patients will be a good strategy to adopt.Official figures say 184K but in reality we do not know as no one keeps track of who comes and goes. The issue of uncontrolled NI nos tells the story. From 1April NonEU Immigrants are required to contribute £150 per person per year including dependents for NHS. NonEU immigrants are skilled and start to contribute from day one. If we leave EU we can get a better quality immigrants and they will not be such a burden on our social services.

  • Simplicity makes sense to all…The referendum to most, was all about free movement of people to go where they please. Do you like it or not. ? Religions and cultures aside, we must ask, can the uk cope with free movement. ? Many PCs and DO GOODERS have spread the word that we are a welcoming country to make a better life for yourself, well, thats exactly what they are doing, you carnt blame them.
    A growing population is something the uk can not cope with. Our roads, schools, hospitals, doctors surgeries, housing waiting list amongst others are evidence of this. People who voted to remain think only of themselves and not the long term impact of free movement to our country. People who voted to leave think of there country and the problems overpopulation causes. .Economies look after themselves believe it or not.
    Its very simple, our country can not cope..It’s as simple as that.