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Labour & Freedom of Movement
04 Oct, 2019

Perhaps a compromise Brexit after all?

Little noticed in the excitement of Parliament’s return after the non-prorogation was the Labour Party conference resolution in favour of freedom of movement. It probably means nothing – Diane Abbot confirmed straightaway that Labour’s policy was unchanged. But if implemented as party policy it could lead to a compromise Brexit acceptable to most of the population. For the Remain movement, that would be both opportunity (reduce damage, preserve personal benefits) and threat (reduce desire for full Remain). In this long read, London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg looks at the possibilities.


Labour’s existing policy on freedom of movement

The 2017 manifesto policy is to end freedom of movement. Beyond that it’s all pretty vague with a list of aspirations.

It was never clear how far the policy was driven purely by electoral concerns and how far it represented sincerely held views.

Since this view held by the leadership was one that many members did not like it was presented as something beyond the Leader’s control. But of course Brexit Britain would be fully in charge of its immigration policy. So ending freedom of movement was Jeremy Corbyn’s unconstrained choice.

It certainly made it easy to see how Theresa May’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexits were almost aligned as both began with ending freedom of movement and then tried for as close a relationship as possible in order not to tank the economy completely.


The Labour Party resolution

The 2019 Conference resolution says:  “Labour will include in the manifesto pledges to: …

  • Campaign for free movement …
  • Maintain and extend free movement rights.

In reality, the manifesto is decided by a separate process. Moreover, Diane Abbot was quick to reject the motion, reaffirming the party’s commitment to a system of work visas. Her rejection provoked a counter-reaction from over 1,000 members backed by arguments from the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.

For now at least the policy of freedom of movement is not being taken forward by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.


But what if Labour adopted freedom of movement?

Labour could then advocate more or less Norway Plus: full membership of the single market and a customs union with the EU.

Jeremy Corbyn would have to accept EU state aids rules. They would not materially hinder his announced policies, see for example this nuanced analysis by Professor Kitty Stewart of the LSE, or this article by transport specialist Christian Wolmar, or this article by George Peretz QC , or Busting the Lexit Myths by Open Britain with authors including London4Europe president Catherine West MP (Labour Leave responded, so you can read both and decide whom you believe). So Lexiters’ hostility to state aids rules is based either on a misunderstanding or on unrevealed Labour policies. Opponents of the state aids rules also do not accept the argument that the rules protect governments against mighty corporations.

Jeremy Corbyn’s claim that his customs union plan would bring the country together is risible. No Remainer sees the customs union as the main benefit of the EU. It is hard to see why Leavers would want any formal connexion with the EU if they are willing to quit the single market.

YouGov in May 2019 found that in a straight choice Norway Plus was preferred over a Customs Union, except by Leavers, Conservatives and those aged 65+.


Would Norway Plus work in practice?

Norway Plus would largely solve the practical problems of the Irish border, though it might be necessary to join the CAP as well in order to fully resolve it. There are also many areas of North-South co-operation that would need to be addressed – 142 were mapped - but these would be less contentious. But practical aspects are only one element of the border. It is located in the imagined lives of Irish people: no non-EU solution can be as effective at allowing multiple understandings of belonging to co-exist as Remain would.

For UK industry and business (but not farming or fishing which are outside the Norway rules) it would come as close as possible to being actually in the EU.

It would mean being in what the Norwegians used to call a “fax union” with the EU. They would sit by the fax machine to learn what rules had been passed that they needed to implement. Now with improved technology they call it a “download union”.


Would the EU/ EEA like Norway Plus?

The EU would surely be happy to have a close economic and personal relationship with the UK and British citizens. They would presumably have mixed feelings about the UK no longer being part of the political direction-setting machinery of the EU.

However, Norway Plus is not actually an existing legal format. To be in the EEA a country needs to be in the EU or in EFTA. To be in EFTA means signing up to EFTA’s trade agreements; EFTA is not in a customs union with the EU.

So Norway Plus would require a novel institutional framework. The EU might be unhappy about that: they no longer enjoy the structure of the relationship with Switzerland, made up of many small agreements. It would also require either the UK to sign up to the ECJ or the creation of a new court.


Would Norway Plus be an acceptable Brexit compromise?

Nigel Farage and other Brexiters used to back a Norway model. Farage had stopped doing so by the time of the referendum, but there were little-heard advocates even then. Nick Boles has been the MP most associated now with the Norway option.

YouGov periodically survey people about “acceptable” Brexit options. In both March and August 2019 that would have been Norway Plus. It is not so much that most people want it – though it does not score badly; the key point is that relatively few think it is a bad outcome.

Dr Colin Irwin of Liverpool University has applied a conflict resolution model to Brexit, asking Remainers and Leavers for views on a range of components of Brexit as well as Remain. His analysis pointed to a Norway-style deal as the basis for a compromise.

Recent work by the UCL Constitution Unit and others worked with groups of voters to discover what was really worrying them about immigration and what they wanted by way of control. Few knew about the EU rule that after three months the right to free movement requires you to have a job, be seriously looking for work, studying or self-sufficient. Once the rule was explained to them most thought it provided enough control. (The emergency brake in the Norway agreement is in practice unworkable and should not be part of the sales patter.) More generally, voters’ views on immigration are more nuanced than they are given credit for with concern focused on immigrants’ contribution through work/ taxes and non-criminality.

The September 2017 UCL Constitution Unit Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit concluded “the majority of Assembly Members favoured a bespoke trade deal between the UK and the EU, but were clear that, if such a deal proves unattainable, they would prefer the UK to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union than leave the EU with no deal. They wanted the UK to maintain free movement of labour, but to use the controls that are available within the terms of the Single Market and make other changes that would reduce immigration and mitigate its costs.

YouGov track what is the most important issue facing the country. People may tick up to three boxes. In 2016 H2, immigration scored over 40% and was normally the second most important issue after Brexit. In 2019 H2, immigration scores 20%+ and is normally about sixth in salience.

Ownership of Brexit has moved away from the anti-immigration Leave campaign (Turkey) and Theresa May, the leader of the anti-foreigner camp, and over to ERG Conservatives for whom Brexit means Global Britain, deregulation and alignment with America; hostility to immigrants is not really a big part of their agenda – though they are happy to instrumentalise anti-immigration feeling to obtain support for their own agenda (and the customs union would thwart their trade deal fantasies).

For a Remainer, Norway Plus would retain almost all the practical personal benefits of EU membership. However it would not provide the same sense of identity. For a Leaver, it would mean removing the UK from the political structures of the EU and “ever-closer union” and also from the despised CAP. Norway Plus would thus bring Britain’s relationship more to the Common Market that many Leavers say they want (albeit with freedom of movement).


There are technical doubts about these findings

It is not clear how far these findings work on their own terms.

For example, YouGov asks about the single market and does not specifically prompt that that includes freedom of movement. So anti-immigration respondents might not realise they are signing up to freedom of movement or they might have reverted to a belief in cakeism.

It is also not clear what “acceptable” means: “Oh, that’s OK” or “well, I would not actually emigrate”.

Immigration may no longer be an issue because people believe that Brexit has solved/ will solve it. That would be particularly true if hostility to immigration is less about real problems and more to do with an idea of what Britain is and how it should look.

Anti-Muslim hostility remains strong, and for many people that is tied up with EU freedom of movement.


Or is it anyway too late for compromise?

We have become a nation of Leavers and Remainers (Professor John Curtice) or of purists (Professor Christina Pagel and Christina Cooper of UCL) with identities hardened. No-one is talking of compromises. Nick Boles MP is a lone voice.

More importantly, the collision of dream-promises with reality and the failure of the main participants to explain trade-offs means that the debate has stopped being about the merits of Brexit/ EU membership and become more about implementation or not of the referendum result. That has also led to No-Deal being seen by many as the one true Brexit.


Implications for the Remain movement

We do not actually have a national Remain movement. We have an anti-Brexit movement associated with a campaign for a process (referendum). So we rarely make the positive case for EU membership. That would have to include both freedom of movement and pooling sovereignty in political co-operation. That in turn means explaining that the UK is a medium size country with capabilities and influence to match.

For hard-core Remainers, Norway Plus would be a step backwards. The political union really matters. Over time EU membership would help reduce the narrative of English exceptionalism.

But at the practical level – and we do keep insisting that Leavers should tell us the practical effects of “take back control”, what laws actually stop them doing something? – Norway Plus would give us the most important benefits of EU membership. We as individuals would retain freedom of movement. And if the country remains open to freedom of movement it cannot become as insular as all that.



The Labour Party conference resolution in favour of freedom of movement opens up the possibility that Labour might at some point adopt a genuine Brexit compromise: Norway Plus.

For the Remain movement that is both a risk and an opportunity.

The opportunity is that it is a route to a least-damaging Brexit that preserves many of the benefits of EU membership.

The risk is that its acceptability means that voters go for it rather than hold out for Remain and the full benefits of European political co-operation and a reckoning at last with the UK’s true status.





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