Brits want mutual free movement restored. 79% of us in a recent Omnisis poll believe we should have freedom to travel and work across Europe (88% after removing ‘don’t know’), and 73% believe, there should be ‘mutual free movement’ (84% after removing ‘don’t know’).
Importantly, it’s not just young or left-leaning people who are strongly in favour of mutual free movement. Strong preferences are stable across age, gender, party affiliation, regions and education level and even among Leave voters (66% yes vs 20% no).
Prepared by Omnisis Ltd: 15 March 23
The key factor appears to be the use of the word ‘mutual’ added to the question, which although accurately describes what free movement always was, nevertheless potentially changes the outlook on the phrase ‘free movement’ from one of denoting immigration into this country to one of mutual rights, fairly balanced with our fellow European nations. See the phrasing of the question below.
This may well come as a shock to some of our MPs who like to pretend immigration and free movement are one and the same thing. It also reinforces what many have argued, that the phrasing of questions around immigration, and free movement in particular, can have huge swing effects on the polling results. Therefore, when making arguments on this topic, framing is everything.
With regard to free movement itself, it has often been portrayed by politicians as a barrier to the UK being able to be part of or rejoin the single market. In actuality, if framed as a mutual agreement and benefit, it could be a very attractive step in its own right which then makes single market deals or even re-entry much easier.
Prepared by Omnisis Ltd: 15 March 23
Free movement: the UK government never enforced the rules
One thing free movement is not is immigration. Politicians are as confused as many pundits in mixing the two things up.
Free movement was created in the EU to allow ordinary people to move from country to country easily. It was something meant to benefit ordinary citizens and show them that the single market had real advantages.
The rules essentially are that you have the right to visa-free travel in your country of choice for three months, after which you have to leave unless you can show you have gainful employment (being the same single market, you have the right to work anywhere) or you could show you had enough financial means to live there without burdening the country.
Those restrictions after the three-month cut-off are important and applied more strictly in many European countries that subscribe to free movement (whether in the EU or out). This was not the case in the UK during the referendum of 2016 as our government chose not to enforce the restrictions seen elsewhere, and such options were not even raised by David Cameron during the referendum debate.
Importantly, free movement was for everybody, not just the rich, privileged or those with jobs which required international travel. Free movement was a great social leveller, ensuring every Brit, regardless of their wealth or background had the same fundamental rights and opportunities right across Europe. It’s for this reason that the UK divorcing itself from the European free movement environment means that inequality of opportunity for ordinary British citizens has now significantly worsened across the board.
Brexit didn’t end free movement – other Europeans still enjoy it
Brexit did not end free movement, as Priti Patel famously claimed. Rather, this government ended UK participation in mutual free movement, meaning that UK citizens lose all their free movement rights in over 30 countries that subscribe to it – and the citizens of all those other countries keep their access to over 30 countries on free movement terms – just not the UK. That’s quite a raw deal for ordinary Brits.
Now we are limited to staying no longer than 90 days in any of the EU’s member states or anywhere in the single market area apart from Ireland. Our youth now cannot simply go and study or find bar work in EU member states and our retirees cannot simply settle into houses near beaches in Spain. Our working age citizens cannot simply pick up work on the continent ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’ style and our musicians cannot haul their equipment around Europe as if they were merely gigging between Sheffield and Swindon without crippling expenses.
Our small tech start-ups in London can also no longer cast their net across a vast market of over 500m people and pick up top programmer talent from European countries – now they have to navigate new red tape in hiring non-Brits, oftentimes causing burdens that make it just not worth their while. Service industries have also lost highly skilled EU workers; hospitality, agriculture and food production have been hit in the most devastating of ways.
A question of fairness
While politicians sometimes claimed that ending free movement for EU citizens into the UK put them on the same, fairer, footing as non-EU citizens, this misses two fundamental points about the free movement arrangement.
Firstly, EU citizenship and mutual free movement were special benefits for all nationals of the states that made up the EU. It was a multi-way deal about a package of citizen rights that also included British citizens.
Secondly, under free movement arrangements, our government was at absolute liberty to treat non-EU immigrants better or worse than the basic mutual agreements set out for citizens of fellow European nations. In other words, there was no unfairness to non-EU citizens written into free movement, because it was completely up to our own government if they wanted to treat non-EU citizens better than they treated EU citizens.
The most interesting aspect of the polling is the power of that word ‘mutual’. As with many things in politics, what is acceptable or unacceptable often comes down to notions of fairness. When people think that ‘free movement’ means the unhindered free movement of EU citizens into the UK only, they understandably balk at the notion of granting such a privilege.
However, when presented with the prospect of expanding their own rights and freedoms in exchange for others having the same, this then becomes a highly attractive offer. Anyone wishing to advocate for the notion of regaining British free movement rights should be focusing on true British values like opportunity and fairness.
With thanks to Professor Juliet Lodge for providing the initial research for this article