The UK and the freedom of movement debate

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Earlier this month, Angela Merkel warned David Cameron that the principle of freedom of movement within the European Union was not up for negotiation and that she would rather see the United Kingdom leave the EU than compromise over the policy. Even the Prime Minister’s Nordic counterparts, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, have weighed in on this debate, warning Cameron that changing the rules of freedom of movement could ‘ruin’ the institution.

p.9 Germany and Britain Sebastian ZwezAs a German citizen who has lived in the UK for over a decade now, I find myself at odds with this predicament. The principle of freedom of movement has affected so many Europeans across the continent, and not just those from EU member states; Switzerland has up until recently fully accepted the terms of the ‘Four Freedoms’ of the single market (people, goods, services and capital), despite the fact that the country isn’t even a member of the European Economic Area, let alone the EU. So how can the UK, which arguably plays a fairly significant role within the international organisation, assume that it can pick and choose between the basic foundations of the institution? In order to reap all the benefits of being a part of the EU’s single market economy, you must be willing to pay the price of freedom of movement.
But what truly is the price of freedom of movement?

According to a recent report by University College London’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, the immigrants from the ten countries that joined the EU in 2004 contributed £4.96 billion more in taxes than they took from using public services and claiming benefits up to 2011. Compare this to the British population in the same period, which drained the state of around £600 billion. However, there remains evidence that immigration can also drive down the pay of the indigenous population, particularly those at the lower end of the pay scale. This can result in a greater use of benefits amongst the working poor in Britain. Whether or not the overall contributions outweigh this risk is often debated, though it must be pointed out that a large majority of the immigrants in this country are relatively young and are therefore able to contribute even more to the UK’s economy over the time that they will living and working here.

Immigration has always been a scapegoat used by political parties across Europe; something about it seems to unnerve people, and politicians are very aware of this. Yet there are far greater issues with the EU as an institution than just the freedom of movement of people, such as the recent budget surcharge, which led to increased budget demands for many member states, including the UK, whilst other countries, such as Germany and France, saw a reduction in their contributions. Issues revolving around the EU economy and budget remain serious concerns, yet political parties from across the spectrum continue to use immigration as the face of their campaign against the EU. Even the Labour Party has recently tightened its policy on immigration controls and the rights of EU migrants within the UK, with a particular focus on benefits and tax credits. With politicians on both the left and right arguing for more strict rules on freedom of movement, it is difficult to distinguish whether this should be our greatest worry when it comes to the EU.

According to German news magazine Der Spiegel, the German Chancellor fears that the UK was getting close to a “point of no return” regarding its membership of the institution, yet David Cameron recently said that he believed the British people would want to stay in the EU, just in a “reformed and changed” state. Whether this is the case will be shown in next year’s general election, with the rising popularity and success of UKIP leaving the UK’s membership of the EU at risk.

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Ramiye Thavabalasingam is a former News & Comment Editor at bathimpact (2014/15). She writes about a number of University of Bath issues, as well as local Bath politics.

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