Rethinking Europe

German Lessons for Britain on EU Workers’ Freedom of Movement

It is ludicrous to blame Angela Merkel’s refugee policies for strengthening the Brexit vote. The wave of xenophobia was the result of the UK’s own administrative ineptitude.

Credit: Prachatai www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • What the Brexiteers consistently overlook is that the problem of “too much” inward migration was by no means induced by the EU. It is entirely of the UK’s own making.
  • It is ludicrous to blame Angela Merkel’s refugee policies for strengthening the Brexit vote. The wave of xenophobia was the result of the UK’s own administrative ineptitude.
  • Where Britain went wrong was not to copy Germany and other EU member states in managing new arrivals right after 2004.
  • Unlike all other countries on the European continent, the UK does not register new arrivals to have an Identity Card or require them to register themselves with the authorities in the UK or to apply for such a status.
  • It was Mrs. May of all people, then acting in her capacity as Home Secretary, who abolished an embryonic Identity Card system in 2010.

In her speech to the Conservative Party conference, Theresa May announced that tough new immigration controls will be introduced against Europeans wishing to come to the United Kingdom in the future. They may even have to apply for a visa to make a tourist visit to Britain.

If this proposal is really put into practice, all hopes of the UK maintaining access to the EU Single Market will die as the indivisible four EU freedoms of movement – for goods, capital, services and citizens – is non-negotiable.

What this most recent incident shows is that UK authorities and politicians have an ill-conceived idea of how to deal with migration issues. They truly show themselves off as “Little Englanders,” ignominiously – and highly ironically — signaling the same fears as Kaczynski’s Poland does.

It’s Merkel’s fault

Among Brexiteers, but also serious UK-based analysts, this rather paranoid mindset manifested itself first when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was blamed for strengthening the Brexit vote in the June 2016 referendum.

Her decision in September 2015 to let in one million refugees fleeing murderous conflicts, oppression and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa is supposed to have opened the floodgates for Brexit.
That is pure fiction.

Undoubtedly, the main factor in swinging the Brexit vote was it gave white English men and women their chance to vote against immigrants.

Xenophobic politics, a key driver of the Brexit result, is caused by xenophobic politicians – in one’s own country. Just remember that, 50 years ago, a racist but very senior Tory politician, Enoch Powell, said Britain was “mad, literally mad, as a nation” to allow immigrants into the country.

Powellism sunk deep roots very fast, even if at the time it was rejected by the Conservative Party’s leaders of the day. In recent time, this xenophobic spirit has manifested itself most virulently in the British tabloid media.

What the Brexiteers consistently overlook is that the problem of “too much” inward migration was by no means induced by the EU. It is entirely of the UK’s own making, due to misguided political calculations and an inept administrative practice.

Brexit was triggered by UK arrogance

Part of the problem stems from the UK government’s decision in 2004 not to impose tough restrictions on workers potentially arriving from the eight new EU member states of Eastern Europe. It was a matter of grandstanding.

The UK wanted to underscore its openness and deliberately did not follow the practice of other countries – entirely consistent with EU law – to restrict the freedom of movement for those countries for up to an 7-year transition period.

Germany acted much more circumspectly

Germany was one of the countries that put such restrictions in place, though with plenty of loopholes. Other countries gave up as EU citizens able to travel freely just came and got jobs. And yet, today Germany has 1.7 million Poles living and working in the country — and a total 6.1 million EU citizens.

These are twice the figures of Poles and other EU citizens living and working in Britain.
Where Britain did go wrong was not to copy Germany and other EU member states in managing these new arrivals right after 2004.

The most telling episode in all this was then-Prime Minister David Cameron pleading with Angela Merkel to stop the arrival of Europeans in Britain. As he argued, they were putting big pressure on the UK’s housing market, schools and health services.

Merkel asked him to send her a list of how many EU citizens there were in the UK and where these problems could be examined. Berlin is still waiting to this day.

There is a very simple reason for that: Neither Cameron nor his successor, Theresa May, knows how many EU citizens there are in Britain.

UK shortsightedness or administrative lapse?

This is where the UK’s administrative laxness or ineptitude enters into the equation. Unlike all other countries on the European continent, the UK does not register new arrivals to have an Identity Card or require them to register themselves with the authorities in the UK or to apply for such a status.

In fact, it was Mrs. May of all people, then acting in her capacity as Home Secretary, who abolished an embryonic Identity Card system in 2010. Thereafter, she also did away with the EU worker registration system that allows all other EU member states to count the numbers accurately.

In addition, the EU’s so-called freedom of movement rules do not apply to state employment. Yet, the biggest employer of EU citizens in Britain is the state-run National Health Service. Britain could surely train its own doctors and nurses, but prefers an easier and far less costly option — to import them from abroad.

This problem of a lack of skilled people is also a big challenge for the private sector. Britain has the worst apprenticeship schemes in Europe. Thus, employers who need skilled craft workers like electricians, IT specialists, plumbers, heating engineers, even bricklayers and carpenters had to recruit from Europe. There were basically no such skilled workers coming into the labor market from within Britain.

Under Tory political rule at Westminster since 2010 when David Cameron took over in Downing Street No. 10, UK-based employment agencies acted as gang masters to bring in East European workers and renting them out to local British employers at extremely low wage rates.

This was illegal under EU law, but British government officials deliberately turned a blind eye to these practices in order to maintain a flow of docile, low-pay workers for British firms.

Hence, it wasn’t the EU and/or its devious machinations that flooded the UK market with labor from abroad. It was the country’s own deliberate policy.

The UK’s lax labor market rules

Other European countries like Germany have much tougher internal labor market rules. In fact, Germany’s 2004 Zuwanderungsgesetz (Immigration Law) allowed exemptions for employers to hire in EU workers.

Germany also made sure to give trade unions a voice with employers on hiring workers from outside Germany. Germany also supports proper apprenticeship training systems and insists every European worker was registered with an identity card.

If Angela Merkel is to “blame” for one thing, it is that she might have been more outspoken to suggest to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and now Theresa May that Britain should have copied Germany and its much stricter management of internal labor markets.

She could have added that it makes sense to promote job training for local workers to avoid the kind of anti-immigrant tensions that culminated in Brexit.

A working class conveniently overlooked, as is often the case in the UK, eventually bites back. That is as understandable, as it is legitimate. But that has nothing to do with EU practices – and everything with UK politicians’ consistent disregard for sensible European registration practices.

It is not too late

As the UK manages the difficult road to avoid a hard Brexit, it is not too late. At the Paris Motor show, both BMW and Jaguar Land Rover said they would relocate to Europe if they lost single market access. If Mrs May does insist on preventing Europeans from travelling to, or living and working in Britain, then a very hard Brexit lies ahead.

Finding EU law-conforming ways to restrict the freedom of migration to channel migration smartly, and in the UK’s national interest, the UK does not have to leave the EU. All that London needs to do is to take over the best measures from other EU member states.

Properly managed – that is, managed at all in the UK case – labor mobility adds value to any national economy and its people. There is nothing to be feared from immigration per se. After all, in Europe’s richest nation, Switzerland 26% of the population is foreign-born.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won’t Leave Europe.” [London]. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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