If you believe in the EU, it's time to stand up for free movement

Instead of treating it like a necessary evil, Remainers should reject lazy anti-immigrant sentiment—and show why freedom of movement is a good thing

June 20, 2018
Two protestors in face paint showing the Union Jack and EU flag kiss at a protest. Photo: PA
Two protestors in face paint showing the Union Jack and EU flag kiss at a protest. Photo: PA

Two years after the Brexit vote, the conversations around when, and how, we will leave have become more urgent and complex—but not less bitter.

On the Remain side, pundits talk about how a growing feeling of anti-immigrant sentiment underpinned the result, about the Leave camp’s mastermind manipulation, the dark arts of bus stunts and Russian interference.

While the influence of some of these might be overstated, the analysis is not incorrect. Undeniably, the feeling that something had to be done about immigration was a large part of why Brexit happened.

The problem, however, is that pro-Europeans seem to have decided that the public was right, and they were wrong; freedom of movement was a mistake.

This conclusion haunted every move pro-Europeans made during the campaign—and every move they have made since. Any conversation about immigration seems to start from this point.

The “legitimate concerns” line became not something to be discussed, but an incantation to be chanted immediately, preceding any discussion, as if to ward off evil. After years of accusations that they simply couldn’t connect with the concerns of “ordinary people,” liberal politicians have chosen not to engage, but to back those concerns uncritically.

The devil you know?

Few politicians felt that they should challenge these concerns, or show that freedom of movement has benefited the average person in Britain. By refusing to address this thinking, and instead making the case for the EU as a good thing only in that it is the devil you know, pro-Europeans lost the referendum.

They have now changed the wording of their magical thinking, but not the irrationality behind it; the important thing has become ensuring the all-powerful Second Referendum takes place.

The People’s Vote idea has a floating support among the public; depending on the wording, it can get just over half of people to back it—so it makes sense that many see it as a solution to Brexit’s “Will of the People” rhetoric.

But ensuring a People’s Vote takes place would be a hollow victory; once it was made real, it would run into the same problems that plagued the Remain campaign.

It's not just about the leader

Many believe that the main block to the People’s Vote is called Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader has never been a fan of the EU, and his current policy on it is ambiguous at best, and cavalier at the worst.

Activists therefore focus their energies on changing the Labour leader’s mind, or replacing him for a more pro-EU MP.

Of course, it’s valid to pressure party leaders. The issue is that it’s also not a real solution.

It is true that Corbyn was unlikely to break into “Ode to Joy” during his recent appearance at Labour Live.

But there is a larger problem that stymies attempts to stop, or even soften, Brexit: a line that runs from Gordon Brown to Jeremy Corbyn to, indeed, pro-Remain MPs on both sides of the house.

These politicians are united in seeking a deal the UK can benefit from membership of the EU without the burden of freedom of movement.

Even Lib Dem politicians fall victim to that kind of thinking, as former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg proved recently. For Pro-Europeans, they don’t appreciate the EU very much.

Why the idea doesn't work

“The benefits of the EU, minus one of the core benefits of the EU” is a terrible proposal in two levels.

The first, basic, one, centers around the word “indivisible”. The European Union’s first interest is to its own survival. It will not sacrifice one of the four freedoms to keep Britain.

But even if it were possible, it would be a terrible development to the European project.

A positive thing for Europe

Freedom of movement is a good thing. Where people have learned to think of each other as enemies, freedom of movement makes it so they become friends, family, loved ones.

Without it, the European Union becomes a detached, cold organization whose sole purpose is trade; a closed-down capitalist club without benefits for the rest of its people.

If this is the EU’s ultimate outcome, why would anyone feel compelled to defend it? Arguments about the economy hold weight, of course, but only to an extent.

In the end, there must be something more to the EU membership than just telling people they can’t do better.

Love to love EU

Pro-Europeans complain that Brexit was sold as a fantasy solution to a series of complex problems, but they seem to believe it must be solved in a similarly wondrous manner.

There is no charismatic centrist leadership, no second referendum, no miracles; to get a new vote and win it, pro-Europeans need to learn to love the thing that makes membership of the EU worth defending.

This will be a long and difficult campaign for anyone willing to try. But this consensus did not come from the heavens; it was built on the belief that not making the case for immigration would not have consequences. We now know that this isn’t true. It’s time to fix it.