Britain benefits from free movement

Voters often confuse internal and external EU migration, mistakenly assuming that a Brexit would better prevent non-EU nationals from ‘sneaking in’. Hugo Dixon, Chairman and Editor-in-chief of, thinks it won’t. This piece is part of the UCL European Institute’s second guest editor week on openDemocracy.

The Treaty of Rome, which set up the forerunner to the EU, enshrined what are known as the ‘four freedoms’: free movement of goods, services, capital and people. This is one of the most important charters for freedom the world has ever seen. In Britain, there is little controversy over the first three freedoms. But free movement of people is the subject of heated debate. If Britain ultimately votes to quit the EU, a desire to curb immigration will probably be the main reason.

Eurosceptics have many complaints about free movement. They argue that our country is already overcrowded, so we don’t need more people competing for scarce space. They worry that our culture is being diluted by foreigners with different habits. They fear that migrants are stealing our jobs, coming to Britain to live a good life on benefits without contributing to the common pot by paying taxes, and are committing lots of crime. They also say that public services, such as the National Health Service and social housing, are overstretched because of the influx of migrants.

Some of these complaints have a grain of truth. But they are all exaggerated. Free movement within the EU is, on balance, a good thing for Britain both economically and culturally. We don’t just benefit from the inflow of talent; our own citizens have the opportunity to roam freely over 27 countries. This does not, however, mean that free movement brings benefits for everybody. We need to work harder to deal with the problems, without throwing away all the advantages by quitting the EU.

Part of this involves reforming the way benefits are paid in the EU, so that free movement does not become a charter to live in another country at the expense of its citizens. Although such ‘welfare tourism’ is a rare phenomenon, it is unfair. Nobody likes someone else having a free ride. This is a central focus of Cameron’s reform drive. Part of the solution, though, is in our own hands. We need to make sure that we tackle pinch points in public services, build more homes and police the minimum wage much better so that ruthless employers don’t bring in cheap labour from across the channel. We should also pour more resources into adult language classes so that new arrivals quickly learn to speak good English and so integrate better into our society.

It is also important to distinguish between immigration from outside the EU and free movement within the EU. Often these two issues get muddled in people’s minds. When they see television pictures of people jumping onto lorries in Calais in order to sneak into the UK, they sometimes think this is something to do with our EU membership. It isn’t. EU citizens are free to come into Britain without clinging onto the underbelly of a truck. It is non-EU citizens who have been trying to get here illegally. If we left the EU, we would face exactly the same problem with this type of migrant.

One reason why free movement is such a hot topic is because politicians have so little credibility on the subject. When eight eastern European countries led by Poland joined the EU in 2004, the Labour government estimated that between 5,000 and 13,000 migrants from these countries would come to the UK each year until 2010. This proved to be a wild underestimate because other EU countries didn’t open their borders as soon as we did and so migrants who wanted to go abroad had few other opportunities apart from Britain. By March 2011, there were 1,114,000 people born in EU accession states living here (see sheet 2, cell AB15). The Conservatives have been just as bad. When Cameron came to power in 2010, he promised to cut “net migration” – the number of people coming into the country minus the number leaving – to below 100,000 a year. In the year to September 2015, net immigration was 323,000. Net migration of EU citizens was 172,000.

UKIP has exploited this lack of credibility by arguing that the only way to control migration is to quit the EU. Not only does this ignore the fact that many migrants come from outside the EU, and we haven’t been good at controlling their numbers. If we clamped down on the EU citizens, we would be cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Hugo Dixon is a columnist and entrepreneur, and the chairman and editor-in-chief of

This piece is co-published with openDemocracy.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Feature image credit: Stu Rapley/Flickr. (CC 2.0 BY-BC-ND)

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