Free movement – striking a balance with the single market
ISSUE OF THE DAY
Pressure is mounting to strike a balance between keeping the economy afloat against loud demands at home to curb free movement. As, for the time being, Mrs May’s demands to regain British sovereignty seem incompatible with participation in the EU single market, is there room for the right bargain to be made, which protects businesses while reducing the democratic deficit?
At the EU summit in Bratislava on 9 September, Donald Tusk insisted that Europe must address the “unintended consequences” of free movement following the UK’s decision to withdraw. His comments, although brief, show that the EU is at least considering more flexibility surrounding free movement, and demonstrate that it is listening to concerns coming from the UK and other member states, such as Germany and the Netherlands, of unlimited immigration.
However, Tusk went on to emphasise the importance of upholding the principle of free movement, and as such, any moves to counter the ‘unintended consequences’ are not yet likely to go far enough to meet the demands of the UK government. One senior UK diplomat said “it shows that some member states believe that Britain had a point in February, but it doesn’t mean the EU is preparing to ‘cave’ on free movement”.
The EU27 are currently unified in the narrative that the ‘four freedoms’ are indivisible and non-negotiable, and many Eastern European states are unlikely to surrender further ground on free movement than was offered to David Cameron in his ill-fated re-negotiation package. However, the continuing refugee disaster and growing support for populist parties could lead to political support from leading EU countries to alter the current system. In France, the leading conservative presidential candidate, Alain Juppé, is advocating for reforming the Schengen agreement and holding annual votes in the National Assembly on the number of immigrants entering the country. If the extreme right, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, is narrowly defeated in the French presidential election in May 2017, a tightening of immigration and free movement of people in the EU will be critical in denying her a victory in 2022.
Even if the four freedoms form a red line issue for the EU, the EEA offers precedent for flexibility on free movement of people. Liechtenstein, for example, has restrictions on free movement guaranteed by Protocol 15 of the EEA Agreement. While David Cameron failed to gain agreement for a Liechtenstein model for the UK during his pre-Brexit re-negotiations, this does demonstrate that it is possible to find compromise over the fundamental principle of free movement. As it stands, striking the right balance between accessing the single market and reforming free movement will take time. With pressure mounting on EU leaders from France and, of course, the UK, it does appear that the wheel, however slowly, is indeed turning.
Daniel Thornton – Leaving the Customs Union – what is involved?
Emma Reynolds MP – Brexit, immigration and the need to strike the right balance
Jonathan Portes – Myths of immigration since the referendum debunked