by Christoph Meyer, Professor of European & International Politics at EIS and Eiko Thielemann, Associate Professor of European Politics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Freedom of Movement (FoM) emerged as the single biggest point of contention in the debates about the negotiation stance of the UK. The EU-27 have said repeatedly before and after the referendum that FoM is inseparable from single-market access. The case of Switzerland is instructive here: the country recently decided it would rather back down on the full implementation of its referendum vote of 2014 than lose access to the Single Market and EU Research Programmes.
British politics has drifted in the opposite direction, visible most notably in the government’s Brexit White Paper rejecting FoM and promising quantitative restrictions on EU citizens moving to the UK. Only the Liberal Democrats and the Greens say they want to keep FoM, whereas Labour is divided. After initially defending the economic and social benefits of immigration, the Labour leader appears ready to abandon it.
Those who press the case for dropping it put forward a simple justification: FoM stands for an open-door immigration policy, and restricting this was one of most important motivations for a majority of Leave voters. If framed in this way, any prize is worth paying for “reasserting control” over the borders.
However, equating FoM with unlimited immigration is flawed, whilst we argue it should be framed as a right, insurance, and a symbolic bond.
FoM is not an immigration policy but a legal right, enshrined in the EU treaties and elaborated in the Citizenship Directive, to work and study in another EU country. It applies to all EU citizens as a result of their country’s membership of the EU. An estimated 1.2 million British citizens have used the many opportunities it brings to work, study and retire in other EU countries, especially Spain, Ireland, France and Germany.