Why Britain never understood Freedom of Movement in the EU

When David Cameron announced on January 23, 2013 to hold an in-out-referendum on British membership in the EU with a speech at Bloombergs in London he did not even mention the problem of „immigration“. However, just this problem had been the big elephant in England for quite a long time. As a former colonial power and Empire the United Kingdom had always had a special relationship to questions of migration. 

When the Empire disentangled a lot of former subjects became British citizens. For the British upper class there was not much difference between the British working class and the peoples ruled by the same upper class overseas. But the people on the lower end of society feared that they would possibly pay the bill for more demand for jobs, housing, healthcare, and schooling. So immigration was contentious long before the UK joined the EU.

When the United Kingdom joined the EEC, which later became the EU, it subscribed to the „ever closer union“. The EU was not a thing fixed once and for all. It was a union developing into something special: no superstate, but much more than just a common market. Symbols like the EU flag and  anthem, institutions like open Schengen borders and the common currency were there to create an additional layer of identity – not at all replacing regional and national identities but completing them with elements that are common ground for all Europeans.

British governments of all colours and especially the British tabloids never wanted that to happen. They saw the EU as a club to pursue national interests using close co-operation through common institutions like the Commission or preferably with intergovernmental methods. For them the EU was an international organisation, not a supranational organisation.

So the ever more shaky British identity was supplemented by ever stronger English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish identitiers, but not with any feelings of „us“ with other Europeans. 

The four freedoms were not seen as something that belonged together. And the people who used the privilege of being an EU citizen were called „immigrants“ without making any difference from where the people came. The EU-citizenship bound British and other EU-citizens together in one citizenship. That means there was no immigration at all from the EU to Britain, as there was no Scottish or Welsh immigration to England. Blurring the difference was done deliberately by a hostile press, it was done deliberately by hostile politicians – but even worse it was endorsed by stupid pro-Europeans who never stood up against this wrong view.

When the Tories said in their manifesto that they wanted to stop excess immigration they wrongly included EU-citizens. That was a first step out of the European project. Several British governments did not adopt the symbols of unity, they opted out of Schengen and the Euro.

This was the logic consequence of an identity policy that just denied any additional layer of identity above the national layer.

What does the additional layer mean? – It means that caring for the interest of all citizens of the EU is a duty of all politicians in the EU, especially their elected representatives in the European Parliament, especially their nationally elected governments who form the European Council and all EU institutions. In his Bloomberg speech on Jan.23, 2013 David Cameron asked for more privileges for Britain, but he failed to join others to reform the EU in the interest of all EU citizens because he never recognized the additional layer of identity. As I said: complementing, not substituting national identity. A political class who did not recognize this identity made it impossible to join efforts for EU-reform. Not accepting this layer made it possibly inevitable, that at some time the UK switched from half-in-half-out membership to an out-vote.

Britain was a rather crass case of being in the EU without identifying with the Union. But it is not the only culprit. Many politicians in all member states were real masters in collecting all applause for good things as if they made it themselves, not even mentioning that they came from the EU, and at the same time blaming the EU of all mishaps that grew on their own heap.

The EU has a great area from the Atlantic to the Russian border, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. There live nearly twice the number of citzens than in the United States of America. So it is no wonder that it needs some efforts to make clear what the EU does for each citizen. Remember that it is often reproached to Washington and the national politics of the US to be too far from the daily interests of the citizens. But this has not yet led to dissolve US power by splitting up into its constituent states.

The European Union has made mistakes: it did not care enough to make clear, that it is there to protect its citizens towards the outside. The open borders inside the EU (except the UK which opted out) need well protected borders towards the outside of the EU. Workplaces and the environment in the EU need protection against unfair trade and ecological dumping. The EU does a lot to protect their citizens, but it did not speak very much about it, because the experts fear that the very complicated technical issues are not well understood. That is wrong, because it underestimates the citizens.

For the future it must be much clearer that the EU protects the EU citzens, be it against an uncontrolled flow of immigrants from outside the EU, be it against trade wars from wherever these are started, be it robbing EU citizens by tax dumping and tax evasion through tax and regulation havens.

In the future world every national state in Europe is a small country. Small countries can be beautiful and lovely, but size matters. The additional EU identity is necessary to identify those fields where the sovereignty of one nation is useless because it does not have the necessary weight in the global economy. Without the four freedoms there will be no such identity.

But in the UK there has always prevailed the view that the EU is made for capitalists, who may freely move their capital, for entrepreneurs, who may freely offer their services, for salesmen who want to freely sell their goods everywhere, but not for the people who must sell their workpower only in one country. For the EU the partial supplementary EU identity is crucial, Britain never understood this.

When the Blair government prematurely opened the British labour market for Eastern Europeans, who had entered the EU not least because of British pressure to do so as soon as possible (in my view the accession was a good and necessary decision!), people in Britain were not prepared to deal with that. This has to do with the fact that the British people were split into a cosmopolitan group travelling and working globally and a little-Englander group that even when jobless never looked for a job beyond the national borders. No British government encouraged them to learn languages and use their rights to work in any other EU country. So they became an easy prey to demagogues when other EU citizens used just that right.

The Brexit referendum was announced to exert some pressure to reform the EU. But it could not do so because in the view of most British politicians there is no such thing like the common interest of the EU. The Brexit referendum became a vote on immigration dominating all other topics. That makes it so difficult to come to any agreement that includes the four freedoms. Either you include freedom of movement – or you exclude it and with that also exclude freedom for goods, services and capital. Is that so difficult to grasp?