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Have-our-cake-and-eat-it Remain
25 Jan, 2018

It is not only Brexiteers who live in Fantasyland

The belief that the EU will reform in order to encourage us to stay is deluded. We must campaign to stay in the EU as it is. So writes London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg.

Remain fantasies and fantasists

There are several Remain fantasies. One is that Parliament will just vote to make it all go away – no, we need a referendum on the terms, which means we need to persuade Leave voters. Another is that a Remain vote will make everything alright – no, we will need to heal what will still be a divided and unhappy country.

The fantasy I wish to tackle today is the belief that the EU will reform itself in order to keep the UK in the EU.

I do not like saying that Nick Clegg is wrong because he is so often right that disagreeing with him makes me feel nervous about my own position. But this time I am sure. Nick Clegg is wrong. And so is Andrew Adonis. And Tony Blair. And Vince Cable. And Keir Starmer.

Existing restrictions

They are of course right when they point out that freedom of movement is not an absolute right. Unless a criminal, you have a nearly absolute right to freedom of movement for three months. After that you must be in a job, self-employed, looking for work with a realistic prospect of finding it, or able to support yourself (if studying, retired, just living). Dependants of qualifying persons are OK too.

But if you do not qualify – essentially if you are poor and unemployed with no prospects - then the UK may expel you. The UK has never consistently enforced its rights – not even when Theresa May was Home Secretary; we could do so.

David Cameron’s deal

In February 2016, David Cameron secured EU agreement to a number of changes to existing arrangements including:

  • A number of safeguards for the UK in connexion with moves to deepen co-operation in the Euro-area, including not having to participate in Euro-related bail-outs.
  • A renewed emphasis on boosting competitiveness by strengthening the single market especially as regards services.
  • Non-application of the ideal of “ever-closer union” and a reaffirmation of the principle of subsidiarity.
  • Agreement to restrict the availability of social security benefits to those who are seeking jobs; restrictions on child benefit when the child lives in a different member state; the possibility of securing Commission agreement to a four-year delay in allowing in-work non-contributory benefits.

There are two interesting points to note.

First, in spite of David Cameron’s bullish – indeed nationalistic – presentation to Parliament, the deal was not good enough to win the referendum for Remain. (His speech does go on to make well the core case for staying in the EU.)

Second, it is not clear whether the deal is still on the table. On the one hand, “should the result of the referendum in the United Kingdom be for it to leave the European Union, the … arrangements … will cease to exist. ” On the other hand the deal “will become effective on the date the Government of the United Kingdom informs the Secretary-General of the Council that the United Kingdom has decided to remain a member of the European Union ”. So maybe the deal is forever off the table as a result of the 2016 vote; or maybe if we change our mind the deal will be implemented. One for the lawyers.

What the EU is considering

President Macron wishes to reform the posted workers directive. It allows companies to send workers abroad to work on projects while keeping them on many of their home terms and conditions. That makes sense, but creates arisk of abuse. Changes would be controversial to achieve across the EU.

Possible future restrictions

Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have also proposed reforms to freedom of movement. Clegg suggested an emergency brake, Cable a restriction of freedom of movement to those who have a concrete job offer.

None of the changes would make a difference

But neither enforcement of existing rules, nor President Macron’s reform nor the proposals by Liberal Democrat politicians would make a difference.

Remember, Leavers’ objections are to too many Poles working here (when they were not focussed on non-EU migration – to which Brexit is wholly irrelevant of course). Complaints about roofless vagrants or people living off benefits or unemployed job seekers or even child support for children living away from their parents are just the icing on the anti-immigration voter’s cake.

Do we want it anyway?

An EU-wide restriction on freedom of movement would apply to all. It would therefore apply to UK nationals wishing to go to the EU. Do we really want our politicians calling for restrictions on our own freedom to go to the EU27 to find work?

We should not promise what we cannot deliver

Some of the politicians who call for EU reform say that the EU is up for it on the basis of their private conversations. All I can say is that I have seen no report of anyone significant in the EU make a statement along the lines of “since the British voted for Brexit we must offer them a new deal for staying in”. None. The EU have taken the UK’s referendum decision seriously.

Moreover, the EU27 have been adamant in the Brexit negotiations that the single market’s rules are indivisible.

Set against the conventional Leave complaint that the EU always insists on re-running referenda until it gets the right answer – in reality the EU has sometimes negotiated a new proposal that finds voters’ approval - the lack of a targeted reform proposal is even more telling.

Clearly, David Cameron’s agreement was at the limit of what was available.

Of course the EU will reform in the future. All organisations reform. But it would not be honest to campaign in a referendum on the basis of specific future EU changes. The UK would need to persuade the EU27 to agree changes. We should assume that they won’t.

Claims of imminent reform just ratify leavers’ views

What every speech that calls for change to freedom of movement does is ratify Leavers’ views that freedom of movement is a problem. “See! Even Vince Cable and Nick Clegg agree with us.” Then Leavers will be more entrenched in their views.


I understand of course the political / tactical argument for compromising with the electorate on freedom of movement.

But we have to make the case to stay in the EU as it is, not as it might be if it changed.

We have to make the case therefore that freedom of movement is a good thing with the rules as they are.