Theme: Public Policy | Content Type: Digested Read

Losing Perspective: Brexit and the EU’s Freedom of Movement

Eiko Thielemann and Daniel Schade


Jue Hang

| 6 mins read

In recent years, migration has been at the core of debates in Europe. While most governments have been concerned about the management of an unprecedented influx of refugees and its impact on the functioning of the European Union, the discussion in Britain has remained largely separate. Here, the EU’s freedom of movement rights have come to be a crucial issue in the context of the country’s upcoming Brexit referendum.

With the ‘leave’ side on the back-foot on many of the wider economic issues, the BREXIT campaign has increasingly focused on the argument that the EU’s freedom of movement rules do not allow the country to control its own borders, leaving its doors open to migrants from the rest of the continent.

The increasingly shrill tones of political campaigners, highlighted by recent claims that staying in could increase the UK’s population by more than 5 million by 2030, have meant that much of the context within which the EU’s freedom of movement needs to be discussed has been lost. Rather than basing their vote on informed choices, voters thus risk being left without the necessary broader perspective on the costs and benefits of intra-EU migration.

In our full article in the Political Quarterly, we discuss the most relevant causes of immigration to the UK. Ultimately, we argue that it is the attractiveness of Britain’s labour market, rather than its current migration policy, that makes people move to Britain.

Under the EU’s free movement of people rules, Britain’s borders today are relatively open for EU citizens and about 3 million EU citizens are currently living and working in the UK. Other EU countries like Germany have also attracted large numbers of EU citizens in recent years.

As the recent negotiations between the UK government and the other EU member states have made clear, a fundamental change to the EU’s free movement rules is not on the cards. The ‘leave’ side therefore argues that the UK should leave the European Union in order to shut down immigration into the UK. However, such an argument is fundamentally flawed. Despite the fact that the EU imposes few constraints on the UK government when it comes to regulating access for non-EU citizens, significant numbers of them still arrive in the UK every year, and it would be hard to imagine a situation in which the country would attempt to fully close its borders. This is due to the fact that Britain, much like the United States or Australia which UK politicians like to use as a benchmark, depends on foreign migrants to fill certain labour market needs, be they skilled or unskilled. The UK’s open economic model which is often referred to as an example for the rest of the continent in its outward looking nature and dynamism, cannot close itself off without losing its defining features and reasons for its success.

It is the attractiveness of the country that makes it a popular destination for migrants. In academic terms this can be explained by so called pull factors, such as a country’s size, the economy’s demand for labour, the language spoken or the ease with which one is able to integrate into the UK labour market. Even if Britain were to pass significantly harsher immigration laws, its attractiveness for migrants would thus largely persist.

In parallel to these pull factors, the arrival of EU citizens from the remainder of the continent has been fuelled by a number of strong ‘push factors’. Since the economic crisis job prospects in countries like Spain or Greece have been particularly grim. While there may be jobs available in Eastern European countries, the wage levels there have led many Eastern Europeans to look for gainful employment elsewhere as well. Taken together, these push and pull factors can explain a large part of migration flows to the UK.

Any kind of imagined change to the UK’s migration policy would be limited by the gravitational forces of both push and pull factors that have contributed to current migration patterns to the UK. This is irrespective of a Brexit scenario or the ‘emergency break’ on EU migrants’ access to the UK’s welfare system. While the latter would at least address some public concerns as to a risk of ‘welfare tourism’, the former would raise a significant number of other issues.

The EU’s freedom of movement rules of course are not a one-way street. There are about 1.4 million Britons who currently make use of their right to work, reside or retire to the rest of the EU. If Britain left the EU, their status, just like that of EU citizens in the UK, would become uncertain.

Viewing the issue of immigration to the UK solely in the context of the upcoming Brexit referendum risks obfuscating its broader link to the kind of country that Britain is. If the UK wanted to address concerns about migrants by seeking to curb future immigration, then politicians face limited (and arguably rather unattractive) options. They can either radically change Britain’s economic model or alternatively, as one of the participant’s at the LSE’s recent hearing on free movement put it: ‘wreck your economy and throw it into recession.’

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  • Eiko Thielemann

    Eiko Thielemann

    Dr Eiko Thielemann is Associate Professor in Political Science and Public Policy in the Department of Government and the European Institute at the LSE.

    Articles by Eiko Thielemann
  • Daniel Schade

    Daniel Schade

    Daniel Schade is a Postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in Political Science (Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter)

    Articles by Daniel Schade