The case for keeping freedom of movement with the pre-2005 EU and EFTA nations

The case for keeping freedom of movement with the pre-2005 EU and EFTA nations

If it were up to me, I would keep freedom of movement (FoM) for people from the European Economic Area (EEA) after Brexit. Not just for a transitional period, but indefinitely. I supported Brexit, but I did so in the hope that it would deliver a Swiss-style arrangement, which would keep Britain close to the Single Market, and which would preserve the Four Freedoms.

FoM has been a huge success story. EEA migrants in the UK are, in aggregate terms, fiscal net contributors. They pay more in (direct and indirect) taxes than they take out in the form of cash benefits (e.g. Child Tax Credit), benefits in kind (e.g. social housing) and the use of public services (e.g. the NHS). More specifically, the fiscal net contribution of the average EEA migrant is about £2,300 higher, per annum, than the fiscal net contribution of the average UK-born adult. Just as importantly, EEA migrants also tend to integrate easily and effortlessly.

The best aspect of FoM, however, is that it is a low-maintenance system, characterised by remarkably low administrative costs and a high degree of legal certainty. The system is virtually bureaucracy-free, hassle-free, paperwork-free and risk-free – not just for EEA nationals themselves, but also for their employers, landlords, councils, banks, healthcare providers etc. Sure, it is theoretically imaginable that a system of controlled migration would achieve even better outcomes – but that would make the perfect the enemy of the good. Any such hypothetical improvements must be weighed against the loss of simplicity, cost-effectiveness and legal certainty that ending FoM would necessarily entail.

There are some problems, but they could be addressed within the current FoM rules. Some EU countries enforce the conditions of FoM much more rigorously than Britain does, for example by expelling foreign EU nationals who come to claim benefits rather than working or studying.

In short: three cheers for free movement.

That said, I accept that the pro-FoM side has lost that argument. I accept that that ship has sailed, and that FoM in its current form will not survive the post-Brexit transition period.

But this does not mean that all is lost. As I show in my new IEA paper Immigration: Picking the low-hanging fruits, some aspects of free movement are popular. They can be saved – and they are worth saving.

For a start, there are a number of surveys which ask people which countries they would accept more (or at least the current numbers of) immigrants from, and from which countries they would rather have fewer immigrants. For European countries, those surveys show a huge East-West gap. Very few people want to make it harder for Western Europeans to come here. But there is overwhelming support for reducing immigration from the poorest Eastern European countries (e.g. Romania), with the more prosperous Eastern European countries (e.g. Poland) falling somewhere in between.

Before the EU’s enlargement in 2004 and 2007, free movement was never controversial in Britain. So why not go back to the pre-2004 status quo ante, and keep FoM for citizens of the old member states (the EU-14) and the EFTA countries?

For those countries, FoM delivers pretty much the same outcomes that a highly selective points-based system would also deliver. At the moment, there is nothing that could stop unskilled people from, for example, Denmark or Switzerland from moving to the UK in large numbers, but in practice, this does not happen. Two-thirds of Western Europeans living in the UK have tertiary education. They are more likely to be in work than their UK-born counterparts, they earn more on average and they are less likely to live in social housing.

For citizens of those countries, FoM should be retained. You can call that “passport discrimination”, if you like. I’d call it a fast lane, which makes immigration easier and less bureaucratic for some, without making it harder for anyone else.