One of the great dangers between now and the end of Article 50 negotiations, just before the European Parliament elections in May 2019, is that the UK unilaterally indulges in ill-thought-out schemes to impose visas, work permits, quotas and other archaic cold war-era controls on other Europeans.
Unfortunately, some well-meaning people who are broadly pro-European. including Labour MP Stephen Kinnock and the former Fabian Society general secretary, Sunder Katwala, are coming up with immensely complex plans to try and satisfy those obsessed with Europeans living and working here.
Writing recently in the Financial Times, Mr Katwala repeats the allegation from UKIP and other political opponents of Europe that “successive governments failed to predict, prepare or plan for the largest migration wave in modern British history, following the EU’s eastward expansion in 2004”. In fact, as a report published by the House of Commons Library on 25 October shows, only 12.5% of immigrants in the UK are from the eight EU states which joined the EU in 2004 compared to 24.5% from the 15 member states in the EU before 2004. Immigrants from outside the EU are still in a majority, with 24.3% coming from the Commonwealth – double the number from eastern Europe.
There are nine EU member states with a greater share of other EU citizens living in their midst – also largely unplanned and unpredicted – than we have in Britain. France, for example, has 650,000 workers born in Portugal who do not face the unpleasant comments on their right to be in France that is the norm here against Polish citizens. We have a large Polish population, but that is not entirely new. In 1945 we allowed 200,000 Polish soldiers and their families to settle here, and well before 2004 easyJet and Ryanair were operating 40 flights a day back and forth to Poland.
The big difference is that other countries have not harboured the populist prejudice against other EU citizens that has been a staple of British rightwing politics – with a few Labour MPs adding their own opportunistic comments. Nor does any other European nation have such a large share of its mass circulation press highlighting the question of eastern European citizens.
The Brexit vote was highest in the North East, which has the lowest share of eastern European workers – just 19,000. It was the lowest in London, which has the highest population of those born in the eight countries that joined the EU in 2004. In other words, this hatred of eastern Europeans is a political construct peculiar to English Europhobe politics. If Mrs May is wise she will not indulge it too much.
We do not need an Office of Managed Migration so that every house and college can be inspected for Europeans. A much better approach, as Delphine Strauss argued in the Financial Times on 1 November, is to change the way the internal UK labour market works so that employers are more likely to hire British workers.
The rest of Europe has made clear that the single market and non-discrimination against Europeans are two sides of the same coin. Pro-Europeans on the liberal left should focus on explaining the dangers of a full destructive Brexit and not seek to be ambassadors for “managed migration”, a demand that has been in every UKIP manifesto since 1999. The idea behind the glib phrase would be impossible to implement without a huge new bureaucracy and a surge in illegal workers, unless we were to ban every young person from Europe entering Britain without a visa and work permit.
The UK has visa-free travel with 174 countries. Do we want to lose that?
Denis MacShane is a former minister of Europe and author of Brexit: How Britain Left Europe, published by IB Tauris.