Article Published January 6th, 2021

This article was first published in The New European

Free movement of people is one of the EU’s most celebrated achievements. According to the December Eurobarometer survey, 81% of Europeans think free movement has benefitted the economy. Yet in Britain, it is often cited as one of the main reasons why people voted to leave the European Union.

Love it or hate it, it came to an end at 11pm on December 31 when the UK left the single market. To mark the occasion, the campaign group New Europeans organised a 12 hour vigil for UK citizens, EU citizens, their friends and relations to mourn the loss of free movement.

Despite their ambivalence towards the right that EU membership gave them to work, live, study or retire anywhere in the EU, British people made good use of the opportunities offered by free movement. Some estimates put the number of British citizens currently resident in EU member states as high as 1.3 million.

Free movement also meant that the UK had unfettered access to the European single market, including the freedom to trade not just in goods but also in services. As 80% of the UK economy is made of services, that was a valuable freedom to have, particularly for those working in the financial services sector.

Many of the shortcomings in the new EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement stem directly from the fact that the UK has decided unilaterally to end free movement. In fact one might say that the connection between free movement and trade has been under-stated. Business is done by people, with people and on the whole, for people. The customer is sovereign and business has to adopt to client needs, including the need to move freely.

Margaret Thatcher was a supporter of free movement – in fact she can rightly be seen as one of the founding mothers. It was she who recognised in 1987 that restricting free movement within the EU was creating a barrier to trade. She became a powerful advocate of the four freedoms, and the single market which has those four freedoms as its foundation.

It was only later, with the Maastricht Treaty, that free movement came to be associated with citizenship. Citizenship of an EU member state was a precondition for free movement rights within the EU. Moreover, free movement became a component of a new category of citizenship – EU citizenship – which also conferred the right to stand and vote in local elections in another EU member state.

With free movement came the right to equal treatment. In the quarter-century after the Maastricht Treaty came into effect, the European Court of Justice made a number of key rulings which clarified what free movement was about and who it was for.

The answer the Court came up with again and again was that free movement is for people (as opposed to workers, even though workers are of course people). People have lives outside work, including a family life. Restricting family life came to be seen, and rightly so, as a barrier to freedom of movement.

This had the logical though paradoxical-sounding consequence that third country nationals could move to the UK if their partner was a non-British UK citizen (or British citizens returning to the UK after a period of residence in another EU member state) whereas the non-EU partner of a British citizen resident in the UK could not.

It also meant that child benefit could be paid out to an EU citizen working in the UK even if their child was being looked after outside Britain. At first sight that looks anomalous, until it is remembered that in most cases the EU citizen is paying taxes in the UK and is simply being treated in the same way as a UK citizen would be in similar circumstances.

Both of these issues, to the extent that they were an embarrassment to the government, could have been resolved by changing UK immigration law to facilitate family reunification in the first instance or by reforming the child benefit system for all recipients (British or otherwise) in the second case. Instead, the issues were used to discredit the principle of freedom of movement, in an often specious manner which nevertheless went on to all intents and purposes unopposed.

Equal treatment also meant equal access to the labour and housing markets. Without free movement rights, ensuring equal access remains a challenge. That is the case even after the high take-up of the government’s Settled Status scheme which is supposed to guarantee rights for EU citizens already in the UK. A Green Card for Europe would help.

With the ending of free movement may come a temporary suspension of the use and abuse of the term in political debate. What will not change is the enduring value of free movement to the people who had the opportunity to exercise it or who had been looking forward to doing so in the future.

People like Jo Pye, whose mother came to the UK from Italy after the Second World Ward to work for the BBC World Service, and who remembers long family holidays as a child with relatives on the Adriatic coast and was looking forward to living in Italy for part of the year during her retirement.

People like Joan Pons Laplana, who decided over a beer to stop delivering pizzas in Barcelona and came to England, and has ended up 20 years later with an extraordinary career which led him to become the NHS nurse of the year in 2018. Today he is serving on an ICU ward and was one of the volunteers who took part in the Oxford vaccine trials.

The story of Europe is not just a story about the clash of ideologies and nation state rivalry, it is above a story about people. On December 31, New Europeans invited people from Britain, Europe and all over the world, to tell their story about what free movement has meant for them, how it has enriched their lives, and given them opportunities they might never have dreamed of before.

Before becoming such a political issue, freedom of movement was simply a natural part of the lives of all EU citizens including the 65 million British citizens who have ceased to be so.

Those who knew its value will mourn the passing of freedom of movement. Others may only start to realise what they have lost once it has gone.