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Jeremy Corbyn avoids playing to UKIP gallery on migration

by Denis MacShane | 10.01.2017

Jeremy Corbyn is not signing up for Unilateral Economic Disarmament (UED) – unlike other senior Labour MPs whose calls for “managed migration” guarantee exclusion from the single market.

The leader of the opposition is saying Labour is not “wedded” to free movement. But in a couple of interviews with the BBC today (here and here), he also made clear that access to the EU market is “key” and that his focus is to end “grotesque levels of exploitation” of EU workers that undercuts working conditions. He added that whether or not that means any change to EU citizens’ right to work here post-Brexit depends on how the coming negotiations pan out.

Corbyn’s position contrast with that of two Labour MPs, Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds, who have urged a complicated two-tier system governing who can come from Europe to work for Britain. High-skilled workers such as engineers and teachers must have a job offer before getting on Ryanair to come to Britain. They propose a Lego style architecture of quotas for lower-skilled sectors like building sites, tourism and care-homes.

The last economy that tried to manage its labour market with such complex bureaucratic regulation was the Soviet Union. Any such proposals would be instantly unacceptable to the 27 EU heads of government who cannot accept such discrimination against their citizens.       

Corbyn is convening a meeting of EU centre-left leaders, several in government, in London in February. They will confirm what Angela Merkel said for the umpteenth time yesterday, namely that the rest of Europe will not accept that Britain can stay in the single market and adopt discriminatory cold war era measures against the right of all European citizens to travel freely, set up business, live with their family and if they find work take a job.

Follow the Swiss

The Swiss also voted against European immigration in February 2014 in a referendum. For three years they tried to persuade Brussels to accept limitation on free movement. The EU politely said No. If the Swiss wanted even the reduced single market access they have, they had to abide by EU rules. Now the Swiss have agreed to drop external controls and manage people movement by saying jobs must first be advertised to local workers.

Although Corbyn’s comments are somewhat Delphic, he seems to be planning something similar. He said jobs should be first advertised to local workers. He also lambasted gang-master type hiring of low-pay unskilled east and south-east European workers to be exploited by unscrupulous bosses in the UK who don’t try and recruit local British workers. Corbyn wants to tighten up rules to prevent such exploitation.

Such measures are acceptable to the EU as are other internal controls on foreign workers. State bodies like the NHS and other public sector employers are not covered by freedom of movement rules. Other countries have kept up quality apprenticeship training which reduces the need to import skilled workers from across the Channel. An ID card system for access to social benefits, health and schooling would also help.     

Unfortunately, Corbyn’s lackadaisical campaign last June has removed credibility from his pitch on Europe. So, while his refusal to sign up to UED is welcome, the key issue remains whether Theresa May can hold off the UKIP wing of the Tory Party on the issue of immigration as she starts her Brexit talks.

Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe and is author of “Brexit: How Britain Left Europe” (IB Tauris). He is a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners, Brussels.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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