Tony Blair is right on immigration but did nothing to control freedom of movement

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Freedom of movement is not an unfettered right. [Shutterstock]

After Brexit, the rest of Europe will control freedom of movement sensibly without discriminating on grounds of nationality, adhering to the principle that has been in all European treaties since 1950. It is not going to be jettisoned any more than the single market is about to revert to nationally controlled protectionist economies, writes Denis MacShane.

Denis MacShane, the former Europe minister, was also a Labour MP for 18 years. His latest book, Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe is published by IB Tauris.

Tony Blair is perfectly correct to tell BBC Radio 4 listeners this morning that the politics of immigration is now a major question across Europe. But these concerns are to do with the unending flow of refugees and economic migrants encouraged by Angela Merkel’s decision to invite one million Muslim refugees fleeing the conflict and violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya following intervention by the West aimed at regime change.

Berlin told Brussels to impose quotas on Germany’s neighbours without first asking them. David Cameron said a flat ‘Nein’ as far as Britain was concerned, Central European populists in countries with no history of Muslim or Middle East communities copied the UK  and rejected Merkel’s demand.

That is Europe’s immigration issue today. President Macron and others certainly want a new immigration policy to deal with this mass surges of people from or via the Middle East and Africa but this has nothing to do with freedom of movement.

In Brussels yesterday, Blair met Guy Verhofstadt and learnt how Belgium handles freedom of movement for European citizens who want to work and live in Belgium. Measures include identity cards, registration when a European arrives or moves homes, the obligation to leave Belgium after three months without a job, a requirement to take out health care, unemployment and other insurance.

As a result, although Belgium has about one third more of its population from other EU member states than Britain, there is none of the obsession with other Europeans that was central to the Brexit debate.

Freedom of movement is not an unfettered right. Britain has always offered total freedom of movement to Irish citizens and did not even impose passport or residence identity controls during the worst of the IRA terror attacks and sectarian violence of the 1970s and 1980s when 3,600 were killed.

Freedom of movement does not apply to state employment which can be reserved for nationals. Yet the biggest employer of EU citizens is the NHS. These doctors and nurses are welcome and should stay.

But Theresa May had a point in Prime Ministers’ Questions when she pointed out to Jeremy Corbyn that if there were not enough doctors and nurses in our hospitals why didn’t Labour train them when in power?

President Macron has forced through a reinforcement of a key EU law which stipulates that workers sent by their employer from one country to another have to be paid the rate of the job locally.

Employment agencies were set up to offer cut-rate agency workers so the EU mandated that they should be given staff employment after a given period. Working time rules were brought in to stop a return to 60 and 70 hour weeks. The European Court of Justice has just said Uber drivers are employees and must be treated as such.

Sadly both Labour and then the Con-LibDem government opposed most of these measures or delayed their application. Gordon Brown, under the baleful influence of Treasury neo-liberal ideologues, instructed Labour MEPs and party representatives drawing up European Parliament manifestoes to oppose core social justice measures.

The concern over the volume and velocity of arrivals of new workers from Europe was real. It could have been dealt with by re-thinking the way the UK’s internal labour market failed to train local citizens and tilted the balance towards often unscrupulous exploitative bosses.

Both Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem ministers share the responsibility for the abolition of effective craft apprenticeship training. This led to the arrival of Irish and continental Europeans who were properly trained as electricians, plumbers, carpenters – trades Britain stopped training for in the Thatcher years.

Tony Blair’s Global Institute could set up a working party bringing in the TUC and CBI to draw up proposals that better control movement of workers without fantasising about an officious new bureaucracy to issue work, residence, seasonal or regional quotas of permits.

For Labour MPs, a re-design of the UK labour market might be seen as worthwhile in political terms in order to reconnect with workers. The rest of Europe controls freedom of movement sensibly without discriminating on grounds of nationality.

That principle has been in all European treaties since 1950. It is not going to be jettisoned any more than the single market is about to revert to nationally controlled protectionist economies.

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