In defence of freedom of movement

Immigration is a crucial component of the British national story

June 27, 2018
Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images
Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

We are clear that as we leave the European Union, free movement of people will come to an end and we will control the number of people who come to live in our country.” Theresa May, Mansion House speech, 2018

Freedom of movement will end when we leave the EU. Britain’s immigration system will change.” The Labour Party, 2017 manifesto

You'd have been better to stay round our wayThinking about things but not actually doing the things” The Arctic Monkeys, “Perhaps Vampires is a Bit Strong But…” 2006

A short story. A young Estonian man visits a small town in north east England for work, falls in love with a young local woman, and decides to stay. Neither he nor she have much, but he finds work. They get married, and have two sons.

A modern story of a “citizen of nowhere,” right? Wrong. This is a story from over a century ago. The Estonian’s name was Kristian Alberg, and he was my great-grandfather. I estimate that no fewer than 15 people, including me, have existed as a result of his decision to stay in South Shields and marry. All of those were and are British citizens, and two of them, including my grandfather, fought for Britain in World War Two.

Despite our politicians and press framing it as such, Kristian’s story shows that immigration is not something that is done to the UK. It is not a problem to be solved, but a fundamental part of what it means to be British. Spend some time on a genealogy website and it becomes apparent very quickly that most British people have a similar story somewhere in their history. It makes us up as a people, and, in the case of many, many individuals, it is a direct cause of their existence.

Even on the 70th anniversary of the NHS though, an institution built by immigrants, our politicians and media continue to frame immigration solely as a problem to be solved. Even when all evidence points to the economic benefits for the country of immigration generally, and EU immigration in particular, the news is constantly negative.

Of course, local services can be put under pressure by increases in population, and there is some evidence that there has been very minimal downward pressure on wages for the lowest paid. It’s stupid to deny these things. It’s equally stupid though not to blame successive governments for failing to channel some of the increased tax they receive as a result back into services to ease pressure, and into measures to increase the incomes of the lowest paid. Instead our leaders choose to blame immigration and immigrants, and unfortunately many believe them.

We are now seeing the same negative framing of the debate over freedom of movement post-Brexit. From listening to our political leaders and media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it applies solely to EU27 citizens, but it applies to you too. It’s hard to know how difficult it was for my great-grandfather to settle in the UK, but we know that FOM makes it easy for us to move where we want to in the EU.

My wife’s job is in Belgium, and FOM rules gave me the right to become self-employed there. I just filled out a few forms, paid a small fee, and was registered. I didn’t ask permission. It was my right, and it is (still, just) your right. You can decide to retire somewhere warmer and cheaper, live with the person you love wherever in Europe they live, take a job or look for work, or study across a whole continent. And you don’t have to ask permission. You choose where and how to spend your life.

Our leaders’ drive to end FOM under the guise of taking back control is, in reality, a direct attack on our right to control and make choices about our own lives.

For the rich, of course, it will make little difference. If you have enough money you can always buy freedom of movement. For the rest of us though, a door is closing on the possibilities for our lives. Kristian’s great-great-grandchildren will have fewer opportunities, a narrower future, and less freedom than they otherwise would, as a direct result of our government’s choices now.

Casually sacrificing our right to FOM is to treat people with awful disrespect. This is a deeply personal issue. It is about real lives now and in the future. Ruling out continued FOM is telling our children that others will decide the limits of their horizons. It tells them that they will not be able to do what their own parents could do by right. It says “that world, out there, is not for you. Shut up and be happy with your lot here.”

Freedom of movement is a reciprocal right. We have it because the rest of the EU27 do. The government has decided that rights are going to be taken away from all of us for the sole, petty, spiteful reason that some don’t want others to have them as well.

But your freedom to make choices about your own life should not be curtailed. You can guarantee that the very people telling us that freedom of movement, and immigration controls more widely, are only about other people, will still find a way to work or live wherever they want.

Don’t let them take future generations’ right to do the same.