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Free movement is not as hardline as Theresa May thinks

by Nick Kent | 09.02.2017

Since the referendum several EU leaders have talked of the importance of protecting the principle of free movement of people. Theresa May acknowledged in her Lancaster House speech last month that view and concluded that, as a consequence, the UK could not stay in the single market. But both the prime minister and other EU leaders are taking a harder line than is required.

It is true that free movement as defined in the citizens’ rights directive of 2004 is fairly extensive. It includes rights to live, work or study in another member state and a right to remain in that state after five years continuous residence, if certain conditions are met. But the underlying treaties are much more nuanced.

For example, Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU promises free movement “for workers” and talks about the right “to accept offers of employment actually made”. It also says that the right to remain in a country after finishing employment there should be determined by regulations.  

Meanwhile, Article 46 says that the EU should set up “appropriate machinery” to “facilitate the achievement of a balance between supply and demand in the employment market” to avoid “serious threats to the standard of living and the level of employment in the various regions and industries”. In other words, the treaties provide a mechanism to deal with the precise concerns expressed in part of the EU (including the UK) that an influx of migrant workers in a particular industry or area has lowered wages or denied local people employment.

Yet the EU has taken no steps to alter the 2004 directive in response to these concerns. Other changes to EU laws could close loopholes, such as the practice of directly recruiting people to fill low-wage jobs in one member state through employment agencies in other member states, thus excluding local residents from applying.

The difficulty is not that these things can’t be done, it is the lack of a political will to do so. It is understandable that member states which depend on commuting cross-border workers to maintain their economy should take this position (355,000 people a day go to work in Luxembourg from its neighbouring countries) or that countries which have only recently been independent should not want to put up barriers to cross border employment (Croatia and Slovenia were part of the same country from the 14th century until 1991).  

But those issues need not prevent permissive legislation that would enable member states to respond to the undoubted problems that free movement of people has brought in some places. Sadly, the referendum vote has hardened positions in the EU and may have prevented sensible reform which could have avoided a hard Brexit and helped governments in other member states to respond better to populist parties who threaten the EU’s very existence.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

5 Responses to “Free movement is not as hardline as Theresa May thinks”

  • Freedom of movement will probably require some checks at the border, just to justify that the UK has left the EU. As a Northern Irishman I am much more worried about any form of return to borders between north and south, and no real answer has been even on the horizon so far (and I’m sure the Dublin government will not be a pawn in controls to the UK through the island, as it was pre-EU days).

  • Please correct your mention to the cross border workers in Luxembourg. It is highly inaccurate and doesn’t reflect what the linked article says.

  • But surely the European Directive on Freedom of Movement already contains significants checks on abuse already.? The only trouble is that the UK did not enforce the restrictions which were available to them. The UK has been terribly slack in this area and the absence of a centralized system of identity control has made efficient control of immigration much more difficult.

    I believe the the whole immigration question has been used by unscrupulous politicians to achieve their ends ( Brexit ) which they would not have been able to achieve otherwise.

  • As far as I can see, the 2004 EU directive provides for all the controls any country could want, including sending anyone back home if they can’t show full ability to support themselves after 3 or 6 months of looking for work. Theresa May was Home Secretary – why did she not implement it? Perhaps because David Davis killed the identity card scheme that would have made it much simpler to administer.

    I’m told we’re only one of 4 EU countries that did NOT implement it.

    It’s all in http://www.europarl.europa.eu/atyourservice/en/displayFtu.html?ftuId=FTU_2.1.3.html

  • Which leads on to the question, why are unscrupulous politicians seeking Brexit?

    The answer is clear, and needs to be proclaimed loud and clear. The EU Parliament has been discussing proposals to restrict the use of tax free arrangements. Much of the wealth of the City of London comes from providing tax free arrangements.

    Unscrupulous politicians and their paymasters consider that it is worth funding the Brexit campaign to retain that source of private wealth.