The free movement of people: a quick defence

As an Irishman, a referendum on the EU is nothing new.

Since the Supreme Court in Crotty v An Taoiseach [1987] interpreted our constitution as requiring a referendum any time there is a shift of powers to the European Institutions not “necessitated by the obligations of membership of the Communities”, there have been 7 referendums on EU membership. Twice the Irish people rejected Treaty changes (Nice and Lisbon), only to be asked politely again to reconsider the matter and arrive at the “correct” result. Much can be criticised about asking the people directly to vote on a matter, only to later reject their answer. Much can also be criticised on the other hand of the politicians who have taken overly strict interpretations of the Crotty case (Lisbon did not need a referendum; Nice is arguable), and abdicate their decision-making responsibilities by asking the people to decide on complex matters requiring consideration of legal, economic, social and political factors.

A haze of confusion emerges, brought about by ridiculous scare stories and hyperbolic assessments of the future. I remember a good friend telling me that if Ireland ratified the Lisbon treaty that the EU would start an army and that her younger brothers would be conscripted. As a lawyer, I tried to assure her that Lisbon was mostly about administrative change, with an additional human rights element so convoluted that nobody quite understands it. She voted against Lisbon nevertheless, as did 53% of voters.

EU referendums allow otherwise fringe personnel to be elevated to positions of responsibility. And the centrists are tasked with defending a system for which they have long forgotten the underpinning logic. Free movement of people is one such ideal of the EU which the Remainers have struggled to remember how to defend. So let me try to help. There are two strands to this. First, people move. People always will move. And they will do so in significant numbers. The ‘free movement of people’ then simply is a pragmatic acceptance of the fact that swimming against the tide will never be a fruitful endeavour. Ignorance of this reality simply drives people into the “sub-economy” where their wages go untaxed and unregulated. As David Blunkett likes to remind us, when the Eastern European countries acceded to the EU in 2004, 40% of those who registered to work in the UK were already in the country.

Secondly, there is a question about deciding upon numbers. I’ll concede for now (although there are also important nuances to this) the point that there must be some kind of limit on the number of people that a country like the UK can hold without frustrating the goals of the welfare state. The question which follows however is not, what is that limit? It is rather, who decides that limit? What body, person or entity is best placed to decide upon such matters? One answer is that the matter should be dictated by government. That would entail the Home Secretary adopting a rule, or schedule of rules, to figure out which people should come to the UK and which should not. That (schedule of) rule(s) then would have to be enforced by bureaucrats. So, it would be the Home Secretary and bureaucrats which would have to establish which areas of the economy required more or less labour and would also be deciding upon the individual merits of candidates. Are these people particularly skilled in deciding upon these issues?

Or, the decisions could rest not with politicians and bureaucrats, but with the market. Employers, wealth creators, business persons are best placed to decide which people they need to fill particular roles. It is the market which is most adaptive to changing needs. So is the market not best placed to decide?

These two strands can be argued to underpin the logic of free movement within the EU. And the evidence so far is that it has worked for the UK. Unemployment has been dropping steadily whilst net migration has been increasing. Furthermore, studies generally demonstrate that migrants are net contributors to the economy. If there are constraints on public services, it is impossible to lay that at the feet of migrants. If they (including me) are needed in the economy, as is demonstrably clear, and they bring more money to the economy, rather than take away from it, then the blame must lay elsewhere. Putting the blame for cash shortages on the free movement of people who increase the country’s wealth, is like blaming the best sales staff for financial mismanagement of the company; like blaming the bar staff for the failure of the fruit machine.

 

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About taxatlincolnox

Tax PhD candidate, College Lecturer and Tutor at Oxford University; Researcher at King's College London and Social Sciences Tutor with the Brilliant Club. With this blog, I seek merely to contribute to the debate. All thoughts are mine, of course.
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