Following years of vilification in the popular media, attitudes to immigration and refugees played a key role in the 2016 referendum. Four years later, Priti Patel hailed the end of freedom of movement as a great Brexit success.
Attitudes may now be shifting, however. Ending freedom of movement (FoM) into the UK has led to severe labour shortages in key sectors of the economy, while Britons are discovering they have lost out too, in terms of travel delays and lost opportunities to live, work, study, fall in love, join family, or retire in the EU.
Changing the narrative on freedom of movement
On 9 May, a Grassroots for Europe Round Table session was held to discuss how to change the narrative surrounding FoM. The meeting was chaired by Richard Kilpatrick, campaign manager at European Movement UK (EMUK), and the speakers were Michaela Benson, professor in public sociology at Lancaster University, Mike Galsworthy, EMUK’s national chair, and Richard Bentall, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Sheffield.
The session was attended by representatives from a range of organisations that advocate for the rights of British and EU migrants affected by Brexit, including British in Europe, the 3million, the Cross Border Services group, the European Network on Statelessness, Bremain in Spain and Save Freedom of Movement.
Michaela Benson is currently leading research into the long-term impacts of Brexit on migration between the UK and EU. Her work includes examining how to overcome Brexit myths and stereotypes regarding migrants. She described some of the main misconceptions about FoM and how these might be challenged.
The first is that it is often regarded as one-way traffic of people coming here. In fact, the UK has one of the highest levels of emigration per capita in the world. FoM gave UK citizens rights to work throughout Europe, whether in seasonal hospitality and tourism jobs or in highly skilled, specialist and academic fields.
After Brexit, those already in the EU retained their rights to live and work in their country of residence but lost the right to onward movement within the EU, to work across borders, or to return to the UK with non-British family members. British citizens wishing to emigrate are finding it is now much more complex and costly. It is even harder for those who have lower levels of education, earn less, or have less capital to support themselves.
The second misconception is that freedom of movement is unconditional and unrestricted. But it was the UK that, prior to Brexit, chose to exercise little oversight over who moved to the UK and on what terms, with no real requirement for EU citizens to register as residents. Other countries require EU citizens to register, and restrict entitlement to services and benefits. There is considerable irony in the ‘Take back control’ mantra, as the UK deliberately chose not to use the powers of control it possessed.
Finally, Professor Benson warned of the pitfalls of pitching FoM against other EU and UK migration regimes. The term ‘migrant’ has racialising undertones. To change the narrative on FoM we must be careful not to present it in opposition to other forms of migration, as we risk being drawn into the divisive politics of migration too often stirred up by politicians in the UK, as with the illegal immigration bill.
Migrants arriving in small boats and asylum seekers account for a fraction of those entering the UK, but they constantly feature in the news media, raising the question “What is the political purpose of this?”. Professor Benson argues we need to respond with a joined-up understanding of the continuum from FoM through to asylum. Statements such as “I am not a migrant” can fuel divisive politics. Campaigning for FoM should be built on literacy and solidarity, paying particular attention to the language used.
Changing the terms of public engagement on freedom of movement
Mike Galsworthy is co-founder of Scientists for EU and the recently elected national chair of European Movement UK. He expanded on his article in Yorkshire Bylines in March about polling commissioned from Omnisis. Free movement, he said, is regarded as a stumbling block to rejoining the EU because the politics surrounding it are so vitriolic and have scarred many politicians. However, polling on immigration and free movement produces widely varying results depending on how the questions are phrased.
Putting the issue in a context of benefits to the UK, whether to the economy, public services or as opportunities for UK citizens, rather than asking about numbers of people coming here, garners more positive results. FoM is often framed as a free-for-all one-way movement into the UK, whereas the questions in this poll were expressed in terms of our rights, opportunities and principles of fairness. Some 79% answered yes to the question “Do you think Brits should have the freedom to travel and work across European countries?” Even 71% of Leave voters agreed. So broadly speaking, British people think they should have the right to travel freely and work in Europe.
Then, when asked “Do you think there should be mutual free movement for British citizens to travel and work across Europe and European citizens to travel and work in Britain?”, 72% said yes. Once people assert their own rights, it is easier to accept that it is fair that those rights are mutual or reciprocal.
Bringing people on side through fair deals
Galsworthy echoed the point that the UK’s pre-Brexit freedom of movement regime was the least restricted or regulated, and this was its choice, not the EU’s. If further ‘what if’ questions reveal that people believe that free movement with certain financial or employment conditions attached (as they are in most EU countries) is fundamentally fair, we could then go on to frame questions about new ‘deals’. An example could be bringing in more EU workers to prop up the NHS in exchange for young people’s work and study opportunities or the right of older people to retire to the EU.
The aim is to identify what voters proactively want, and to sell free movement piecemeal on those terms. For example, if future polling in red wall seats were to show that floating voters are open to certain aspects of free movement in return for fair deals, it would give Labour the opportunity to sell the economic benefits in a way that keeps their core demographic on side.
Selling the benefits of freedom of movement for the UK
Richard Bentall is a leading researcher on schizophrenia, psychosis and public mental health. He explained that attitudes towards migrants have been shifting in a very interesting and unexpected way since the referendum: with polling showing that overall people are becoming more positive than negative about migration. There is overwhelming support for nurses, doctors, care workers, fruit pickers, catering staff and construction workers.
A study he and others carried out in June 2022 showed that FoM and free trade are not, in fact, toxic to leavers, with implications for the positioning of political parties on FoM and membership of the EU single market. This and other polling show that nearly two-thirds of the UK population would support the UK gaining access to the single market, suggesting that freedom of movement should not be a hard sell if we stress reciprocity of benefits to counter the idea that Britain gets nothing back from migration.
Will Labour break the omertà on freedom of movement?
Many frustrated Labour supporters are wondering if the party is just taking a hyper-cautious stance until the next general election, or if it really believes we shouldn’t rejoin the single market. Will this change after the election, when hopefully the Tories will be gone, and Labour members and MPs can start talking about the damage done by Brexit? Recent polling suggests support for the Liberal Democrats is growing. If Labour were to interpret that as the Lib Dems gaining votes from pro-Europeans, it might give them pause for thought in the short term.
Bentall agreed with Galsworthy that polling in the red wall seats would be worthwhile, but cautioned against allowing the red wall to hold the country to hostage. He concluded by asking “Given the omertà preventing politicians speaking out about freedom of movement, who are our opinion leaders? Where is our Farage?”.