Brexit Blog #6 : When free movement fails

The weekend before the Referendum, I argued passionately that the freedom of the citizens of the EU to move anywhere within the 28 states is an extraordinary achievement.

Such personal freedom goes hand in hand with authentic democracy and human dignity. The EU itself is an extraordinary achievement: at 500 million people, the largest political grouping ever created by consent rather than conquest.

Yet now the people of the UK (or at least of England and Wales) have withdrawn their consent. How did this happen? There will be many theories put forward in the weeks and months to come. So far the consensus is that it was mainly about migration and austerity. The extreme right have been quick to draw false legitimacy from the vote. It seems hard, if not misguided, to blame the EU for the self-inflicted austerity of the UK. Yet there is a connection between migration and austerity at the European level.

"there is a connection between migration and austerity at the European level."

"there is a connection between migration and austerity at the European level."

Free movement should be about the interchange of people and culture. 0.5% of the UK population (about 300,000) emigrates each year. If these are simply replaced by people moving to the UK, there is no net migration, no increase in population. From the perspective of the European project as a whole, this interchange should lead – and has led – to more culturally diverse national societies and a greater sense of European identity. Racism and xenophobia find no purchase in these conditions, indeed, free movement works against such tendencies.

The problem in the UK has been rapid population growth, not migration in itself. Net immigration is usually welcome when the local population is declining or ageing. The UK population has grown by over 7 million since 1990 to nearly 65 million in 2014.

This growth has coincided since 2010 with home-grown austerity and cuts in public spending, preventing the investment in public services needed to keep pace with population. Furthermore the growth has not been evenly distributed across the country, creating hot spots and a national perception that things are worse than they really are.

Delving one level deeper, beneath the high EU net migration to the UK lies a failure of economic policy at the European level. The Eurozone has been a disaster. When the Euro was introduced no account was taken of the continuing importance of the balance of trade between countries.

Foreign investment only makes sense if it generates net exports, which requires the investment to go into productive, export-oriented projects and enterprises. However, banks are interested in net profits, not net exports. Profligate governments and consumers, or speculative property developers, make just as good customers – at least in the short run. In the crisis, the standard economic prescription for boosting net exports so as to repay foreign debt is austerity: cut public spending, create unemployment and reduce imports. Economic policy in the EU has thus come to be dominated by the interests of the banks rather than the peoples.

Who can blame people for seeking work elsewhere?

The EU needs a full employment policy, both economically and politically. It needs to return to its Christian democratic roots and shake off Anglo-American neoliberalism; to that extent they are better off without us, for a generation or so at least.

There need to be massive flows of investment across borders, led by the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in a coherent industrial strategy, to create jobs in the poorer states and regions.

If the Euro is to continue, there will need to be a substantial increase in the EU budget, perhaps including an EU pension system and Health Service as well as transfers to local governments, with the political integration and accountability that implies.

Only with a balanced economy can Europe avoid the large net migration flows to the more prosperous regions. Only then can freedom of movement become the positive force that it should be, once again.

"Only with a balanced [European] economy...can freedom of movement become the positive force that it should be, once again."

"Only with a balanced [European] economy...can freedom of movement become the positive force that it should be, once again."

None of this changes our duty to welcome the stranger. There will be a clear case for giving preference to refugees under a new migration regime; ironically, UK politics might be more receptive if the overall pressure were reduced.

Individuals are absolutely entitled to exercise their legal rights to move. There is no excuse for xenophobia or for unfair treatment of EU citizens who have moved to the UK before the new regime is introduced.

For my own part I regret the decision to leave. The silver lining is that this withdrawal of consent may be enough to change Europe, not in order to keep the UK, but for its own good.

Mark Hayes is the inaugural holder of the St Hilda Chair in Catholic Social Thought and Practice at Durham University, and is a trustee of the Centre for Catholic Social Thought and Practice | @mghayes37