Free Movement as Lifeline – an unpopular remain argument

This is not a popular argument, even among Remainers. It rests on my belief that migration, especially European migration, is good for both the donor and the host countries. Cynics will read this blog as an argument that we should stay in the EU so poor Europeans can come to Britain. That is not what I’m arguing. I am arguing that the ability to move abroad and work or study is important for Britons, particularly those with low skills or education.

Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain have been having a terrible time since 2007, and few in the EU debate would deny the euro currency had a major role. Youth unemployment soared in these ‘PIGS’ nations, peaking at 55.5% in Spain and 58.3% in Greece. In Ireland it was 33%, while Britain weathered the recession relatively well at 21%.

Tens of thousands of young PIGS citizens sought work abroad: in America, Australia, Germany, Holland and Britain. The first two of these have tight restrictions on unskilled migration. But under free movement that rules, the EU member states were open to young workers from the afflicted countries, whether they were lucky enough to have master’s degrees in engineering, experience in construction, or just gumption and a willingness to serve coffee.

At least 400,000 Western Europeans left their recession-torn home states to work abroad in the last decade, some for just a few months, others longer. It is much cheaper and easier to move to a country an hour or two away than to Canada stop Imagine how much worse Spain or Greece’s unemployment figures would have looked, had only skilled & wealthy emigrants been accepted in neighbouring states. If the least educated, least experienced young people had been forced to stay home, youth unemployment figures could easily have exceeded 70%, with the attendant extra strain on those countries’ buckling welfare systems, national psyche, even civil stability. Movements like Golden Dawn thrive in such conditions.

For those fleeing Mediterranean depression, free movement was a lifeline. Rather than spend long years living with parents, dependant on welfare, competing with all their old classmates for each rock-bottom job, they could go to Denmark or Sweden, get jobs, build up their language skills, make contacts, and return home more experienced people when the worst was over. Long-term unemployment affects workers’ earnings decades in the future.[1] The ability to find a job, even a job you’d rather not do, in a stable neighbouring country, is key.

Vote Leave say they would introduce an Australian-style migration system for EU migrants that let in only those with high skills.  The Spanish and Dutch prime ministers, Mariano Rajoy and Mark Rutte, have already said that if the UK adopts a points-based regime against EU citizens, Holland and Spain will have to do the same for Brits. This is implicitly all of Western Europe’s stance: Chancellor Merkel of Germany noted that countries outside the EU ‘will never get a really good result in negotiations’ with the bloc.

After Brexit this would not hurt elites like Boris Johnson, or those close to him. If Britain suffers a downturn, the best-educated and wealthiest Britons will always be able to travel. They will pass the hurdles to get visa for Australia, Canada, America – and they will be able to compete best for jobs at home. This is equally true of myself and many leading Remainers: thanks to globalisation, the world’s elite is already privileged with de facto free movement.

However, ending free movement cuts out the safety valve for mid-low skilled young Britons who cannot pass such skills demands.

That is fine while the economy is stable, but in a recession, it could be appalling. The elite would be least affected, while those not in employment, education or training (‘NEETs’) would suffer most. They cannot all go to Ireland. A recent Economist article suggests that British NEETS have the grimmest prospects and worst educational achievement among developed nations, with the lowest numeracy and literacy rates. Uniquely, British youths ‘have worse literacy and numeracy rates than those aged between 30 and 54, a pattern not seen in any other country in the European Union.’ Without the free movement option, British NEETS would be effectively trapped in Britain if it suffered a recession. (This piece is not predicting a recession, either as a result of Brexit or from other later factors, but it is an important possibility to consider. )

Low and medium skilled Britons would find their options constrained if Vote Leave and Europe’s leaders keep their word after a Brexit. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet would not be an option. School leavers and graduates could be trapped in a jobless mire. Brexit supporters often note that after exit, visa-free travel could be negotiated and university-swapping schemes like Erasmus continued: that’s all very well for wealthy teens inter-railing or taking a year at the Sorbonne, but leavers the less fortunate no better off.

It is callous of Leave leaders, who claim to fight for the working people of the country, not to consider the most vulnerable young Britons’ life chances in their campaign. It is extraordinary to propose a border policy that arouses hostility in our closest neighbours.

[1] Even graduating into a recession has a marked impact on wages for 5-10 years, as examined by the NBER: http://www.nber.org/digest/nov06/w12159.html

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One thought on “Free Movement as Lifeline – an unpopular remain argument

  1. Pingback: Staying in the EU | Haywire Thought

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