Red lines are in vogue. It’s hard to find a politician who doesn’t want to draw one somewhere, and with Brexit negotiations just around the corner, migration is a current favourite.
But the problem with red lines is that you must be careful not to lay them down somewhere they’re likely to trip you up later. It’s one thing to want to appear tough as you go into delicate negotiations. It’s quite another to paint yourself into a corner in advance, setting yourself up for inevitable failure.
Alarmingly, the government doesn’t seem to have grasped this. Like her predecessor, Theresa May seems more concerned with appeasing the anti-European wing of her party than with a measured judgement about what’s in the national interest, what ordinary voters care about, and what, indeed, is even possible. Because, for all the mutually contradictory speculation about exactly how we should try to disentangle ourselves from forty years of pan-European cooperation, every other EU country is united on this one point: you can’t participate in the single market without following its rules. And that includes, as it always has, the free movement of people.
Meanwhile, Labour politicians have been laying down some red lines of their own – and in some cases ending up on different sides of them. Prominent MPs such as Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna have argued that, however important international trade is to the British economy, our national prosperity must come second to voters’ demands to cut migration. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn and the new shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, are among those making exactly the opposite point: it would be folly to sacrifice access to our biggest export market simply to pander to fears which can be addressed by other means. Yet the government seems intent on making exactly that kind of costly sacrifice.
But this is a mess entirely of the Tories’ own making. It was the Tories – specifically, home secretary Theresa May – who set a strict migration target that they so spectacularly failed to meet. It was the Tories who then blamed this failure on our European freedom of movement. It was the Tories who steered the remain campaign away from pointing out the fallacies of this argument.
And fallacies there are! Most migrants come to this country from outside Europe, a flow that is entirely under our national rules, not EU ones. As for the minority of migrants from other EU countries, they contribute a third more to the exchequer in taxes than they take out in benefits and services combined, and detailed evidence has established that EU migration has virtually no overall negative effect on average earnings (and where it does, national measures could alleviate it). Besides, EU free movement is a reciprocal agreement. It’s the same agreement that allows large numbers of our own citizens to live abroad, many retiring to the sunny coasts of Spain and France – where, incidentally, they make ample use of local health services, unlike the mostly young, independent and highly educated Europeans who have made their homes here.
But we are where we are. And it’s interesting that many of those who want to sacrifice free movement, certainly in the Labour party, have come to that conclusion not because they see it as a real threat, but simply because many voters now believe it to be so. On this, at least, they are probably right. This puts both sides of the debate in a difficult position. Concede on free movement and we let the Tories off the hook, deal a critical blow to our economy, and make life worse for the working people who depend on us. But resist this and we seem out of touch with those same people.
So, is there a way to square the circle? Maybe.
Until now, one crucial point has been almost universally overlooked: the right to free movement has never been unconditional, even under current EU rules. In fact, the UK already has a number of effective tools available to it to manage migration from the EU – if it wishes to.
For a start, a citizen’s right to dwell in another EU country depends on having a job, or a serious prospect of getting one, or being self-sufficient to ensure they’re not a burden on the host state. Those who fail to meet these conditions can be deported, as can people with a criminal record. Welfare tourism has recently been confirmed as illegal by the European Court of Justice, and migrants get no benefit rights at all unless they meet the criteria.
Unlike many of our neighbours, the UK has never bothered to take advantage of these rules. We prefer to grumble instead about our supposed lack of control. Extraordinarily, we don’t even bother to keep track of how many migrants are in Britain; even the government’s official figures are estimates.
And there are other steps we could take, too. We could reinstate Labour’s migrant impact fund, which was scrapped by David Cameron. It redirected the fiscal windfall we get from migrants to give extra support to areas of the country with relatively large inflows. We could tackle abusive employers, who take advantage of migrants’ unfamiliarity with the system to pay them below the minimum wage, undercutting local and foreign workers alike. And we could use domestic law to end the practice of British companies advertising posts in other EU countries but not in Britain.
All of these measures are completely within May’s power right now, and they are entirely consistent with EU rules on free movement. By signalling a willingness to enforce the rules properly, the prime minister could show herself to be tough on migration in a way that really mattered – addressing voters’ genuine concerns rather than stirring up artificial ones.
And, most importantly of all, we would not have to sacrifice our national prosperity on the altar of xenophobia just to paper over the Tories’ failures.
Image: Amanda Graham