Brexit and the EP: what does it mean for free movement?
The European Parliament Office in London held a panel debate earlier this month to a full house on the impact of Brexit on freedom of movement, one of the fundamental four freedoms of the EU.
The purpose of the panel, moderated by political editor of The Economist John PEET, was to shed some light on this extremely sensitive topic, with not just political but also academic input from a variety of angles. As is always the case, the EP office in London sought the participation of a cross-section of opinion, though on this occasion, a number of MPs and a representative from Migration Watch were regrettably unable to join us.
Dan MULHALL, the ambassador of Ireland, clearly outlined the Irish objective “for avoiding a hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic. He emphasised the importance of maintaining an open common travel area, in light of the special, pre-existing agreements between the two countries. He stated that a “wide ambitious and comprehensive” agreement is needed.
Vicky FORD MEP, acknowledged the importance of the topic, but said that even if in principle the negotiations should be easy, some suggestions made by the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, on citizen’s rights could prove problematic. In particular she expressed concerns about the possibility of EU citizens gaining “more rights and more automatic legal procedures” than Britons themselves if certain existing free movement provisions were maintained..
Dr Heather ROLFE, associate research director of NIESR, emphasised the importance of free movement in the labour market. She pointed out that work in some sectors (e.g. food and drinks industry) is historically unattractive to British people, hence the scarce presence of them in these sectors. In her research she also found that employers were keen to keep employees of EU nationality in their businesses.
Brussels bureau chief of the Financial Times, Alex BARKER, pointed out that the difficulties in the present negotiations are a legacy of former PM David Cameron’s rigid position around the issue of free movement. He also pointed out that these same issues and talk of second-class citizenship make it “extraordinarily hard to find a principled solution that satisfies both sides and doesn’t end up with an extraordinary bureaucratic mess”. He finally suggests that the imminent general election could give more time to the government to find political solutions to address the increasingly complicated bureaucratic situation in the UK.
The ensuing Q&A session was one of the most passionate we have seen at Europe House. Clearly, the question is one close to many people’s hearts.
The UK viewers can catch up on the event on iPlayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08rhkhx/brexit-and-free-movement-panel-discussion