Freedom of movement is good for you. It gives you options, autonomy, and the ability to move and re-make yourself rather than being trapped by accidents of birth and circumstance. However, both the free movement of persons around the EU and the status of EU citizens, are poorly understood in the UK. When they are discussed the debate is often dominated by talk solely of movement into the UK from other EU Member States, which in turn is confused with migration from outside the EU, and which is often blamed on the growing ambitions of the EU institutions such as the Commission and Court of Justice. But it is worth taking a step back from that debate and to have a look at the wider impact of both EU citizenship and free movement on the lives of British citizens.
Article 9 of the Treaty on European Union confers EU citizenship on the nationals of EU Member States. Thus British citizens hold an additional status as EU citizens. Further provision is made in Articles 20 and 21 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to elaborate the benefits of EU citizenship. Among those benefits is the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the EU Member States. That right is subject to the limitations and conditions laid down in the Treaties and by the measures adopted to give them effect. What does this mean in practice?
A British citizen may enter into, live and work in, and leave the UK by virtue of being a national of the United Kingdom: she is said to have the right of abode in the UK (see sections 1 and 2 of the Immigration Act 1971). In addition, as an EU citizen, she has the right to admitted to the other 27 EU Member States and to reside in them. Particular provision is made for the exercise of free movement to move for work as an employee, for self-employment, for study and to be self-sufficient. In reality, for a British citizen (as EU citizen) who moves to another EU Member State, few if any restrictions apply unless and until she seeks social assistance from her host State. After five years of exercising an EU right of residence in another EU Member State, she acquires the right of permanent residence there, without having to apply for it.
Instead of being subject to immigration control in 27 other neighbouring countries, the British citizen (as EU citizen) can travel visa-free to any of them, enter them as of right and simply live there as if she were a citizen of those countries. She may work, study or scrape by on savings, it does not matter; she is at home there. She does not need a work permit, she does not need to justify herself.
From the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, she is free to travel for temporary purposes, such as a holiday, or for more enduring purposes, such as to work and settle. In a literal way, her freedom to chose where and how to live is expanded. The freedom of movement around Britain and Ireland that she enjoys as a British citizen – an insular freedom – is massively expanded to a continental scale by her additional EU Citizenship.
The number of British citizens that exercise such rights continues to grow steadily. However, it is not the exercise of the right but the possession of it that constitutes the first benefit, for it confers the freedom to choose and to escape the coils of place and the limitations of the things that life has hitherto offered. It is cheaper to fly to Berlin or Palermo that it is to take many peak-time intercity trains across England. Moreover, it is not just lawyers and bankers that exercise such freedoms but those who work in areas such as construction, or who simply work a bar job in a different country under a different sky.
As work and study take more and more British citizens into other EU States for short or long periods of time, there is a growing awareness of the benefits of free movement. A British citizen (as EU citizen) may move across her continent, in a very similar way and on a similar scale to an American citizen moving across the United States, or an Indian citizen moving across India. If free movement ends as a result of BREXIT, that will end. Freedom of movement will shrink back, drastically, so that London but not Lisbon, Manchester but not Madrid are the only options.
While some migration routes from the UK into the EU will emerge out of the BREXIT negotiations, permission will be required to do what British citizens now do as of right and there will be additional conditions to satisfy. Such an immigration control regime, no matter how liberal, is no substitute for the freedom of movement now enjoyed.
British citizen children now in school will not enjoy the freedom of movement their parents take for granted. It is a colossal failure of foresight and imagination not to see how injured they will be, as goods, services and capital flow in increasing quantities between the UK and the remaining EU Member States, while British citizens will not enjoy the freedom to move around the EU to take advantage of the opportunities that thereby arise, opportunities their French and German counterparts will take for granted.
Moreover, in a post-BREXIT world, there will be no rights of free movement to any other non-EU countries with which it is said the UK will be concluding trade agreements. So there will no substitution for the loss of free movement in the other 27 EU States by any freedom to move to Australia or America.
The loss of the ability to move freely across a continent will not be off-set by the imposition of UK immigration control on EU citizens. Concerns in recent years about rapid influxes of workers into certain UK towns from certain eastern European EU Member States, ought to have been met with investment in schools, health services and housing provision in those areas (EU workers pay UK taxes), taken together with the creation of an adjustment fund for the areas so affected. But those concerns come no-where near justifying BREXIT and the loss of freedom of movement for British citizens in the other 27 EU Member States (or indeed the loss of free movement for EU citizens to come to the UK).
Free movement into the UK from other EU Member States was not a topic of concern from 1973, when the UK joined the EU, until 2004, when eight eastern European countries joined. The numbers moving from eastern to western Europe will subside in time, as living standards rise in the east and the UK and other western European states appear less appetising. At that point Swedish, Italian, and Dutch citizen parents will watch their children exercise freedom of movement as they see fit and British citizen parents will have some explaining to do as to why nativist prejudice and a reliance on evidence-free argument seemed so compelling in the referendum on 23 June 2016. They will also have to explain why patriotic Germans and Italians love their respective counties, celebrate being nationals of their own countries, and yet do not discard the benefits of EU citizenship and free movement. It is mere empty rhetoric to say that leaving the EU does not mean that the UK is turning its back on Europe. The UK is leaving and the horizon for its children will narrow accordingly.