As a Londoner, I am proud to represent one of the most diverse cities in the world. For centuries, the UK and London have opened our doors to people from all over the world seeking a better life and looking to contribute to life in Britain.
However, when voters express concerns, politicians cannot simply bury their head in the sand or dismiss their concerns. To do so only fuels the rise of extremist forces. The role of all politicians must be to listen to the people they represent, and at present they are telling me on the doorsteps of London that there is lack of confidence in EU freedom of movement. Politicians need to look at what needs to be done to regain that confidence.
The founding principles of Freedom of Movement are well intentioned; better opportunities to start businesses and trade across the European Union (EU), and greater opportunities to travel, live, learn and work. It is an appealing prospect to someone like me who believes in open trade and open markets. The spirit of exploration and of foreign investment is how Britain and many other EU countries became great.
And of course, I believe that the freedom to live, work and travel gives us all as nations the important opportunity to understand each other, to see each other’s differences and similarities, and gain a greater appreciation of different cultures.
Freedom of movement is also a reaction to the world in which we live: a globalised world where the movement of goods, people and capital is a reality. We cannot seek to seal ourselves from some parts of modern living yet enjoy a world of imported foods, iPads, furniture, cheaper holidays and travel and global companies.
The UK has always been a successful trading nation and has built relationships around the world to help its companies prosper, which is why we continue to support the strengthening of a genuine EU Internal Market. But in reality countries differ in their specialisation, and the skills they have to offer. Increasingly those skills shortages are filled with other nation’s populations.
Some would say those skills shortages can be filled by putting in place a visa scheme, and putting strict limits on those that can come and work and live in a country. However, in my experience of talking to international businesses, the challenge is to put in place a well-functioning and efficient visa system that is not costly, time consuming or overly bureaucratic, but also is flexible enough to adapt to changing demands. Companies from fast growing economies in Asia and the United States want an economy and a system that is simple to navigate.
Free movement allows businesses to recruit from a much wider pool of individuals. It allows companies to fill skills shortages, expand into new markets, increase their supply chains and have the flexibility needed during periods of growth and loss. In my country, our public services and services sectors would find it very difficult to cope without migrants.
In the UK, many migrants don’t just come to work; they come to start a business. According to a 2014 report by the Centre for Entrepreneurs, 14% of start-up businesses in the UK were founded by immigrant entrepreneurs. It said that there are 456,073 immigrant entrepreneurs working in the UK who have founded 464,527 businesses which employ 8.3 million people. Whether they are from countries inside or outside the EU, we must retain these job-creating entrepreneurs. However, in the UK we face the worrying prospect that those entrepreneurs studying in the UK will take those skills out of the country to set up businesses elsewhere. 42 percent of non-EU students have said that they intend to set up their own business after graduation, but only a third will do so in the UK.
So let’s be clear that many people who go to other countries either plug an important skills gap, or are entrepreneurs who generate growth, jobs and opportunities in their host country. And let us also be clear that EU migration works both ways. More than 14 million EU citizens are resident in another member state – 2.8% of the total EU population, nearly 2.5 million of those people are British.
However, as a politician I hear on many doorsteps concerns about the impact that freedom of movement is having. The main concerns are over the numbers of immigrants, the ensuing pressures on local health or education services, cultural cohesion as well as opposition to benefits tourism.
Freedom of movement was introduced in order to facilitate workers and the movement of goods and people. However, increasingly the people of European Union countries feel that through peripheral legislation from the EU, and a number of contentious judgements from the European Court of Justice, they simple are not a part of what they signed up for. They fear that an area of free movement has become an area of harmonised EU social security.
The rules should be simple and they should be clear, that if you go to a country you either need to be able to find employment or be able to financially support yourself. David Cameron, along with Angela Merkel and a number of other national leaders from other EU countries are looking at how they can bring in reforms to address these issues. Many of these reforms can be negotiated through the already existing framework, such as national reforms of social security systems, or reclaiming healthcare payments from an EU migrants’ home Member State. We can also tighten domestic law to ensure people who cannot support themselves and have not contributed to the social security system can be returned to their home state. In my own country, I believe that the simplest (but also most radical) way to tackle the concerns would be to move towards a contributory benefits system.
However, some Member States will always provide a pull factor. My own home city of London is an obvious example. It is not only the greatest city in the world, but one that people from all over the world want to visit, and make their life there. Much like New York, Berlin, Paris, or Barcelona, bustling cities will always draw people to them in search of new opportunities.
It is an undeniable truth that Europe’s colossal disparity in wages will continue to draw people to other countries. In 2012, company employees in Bulgaria received, on average, €3,598 (£2,809; $4,495) net annually. In Romania that figure is €4,004. For the UK the figure was €33,216, for Germany €26,925 and Denmark €32,396. They will equalise as growth, trade, infrastructure and wages pick up in countries that are still recovering from decades of Communism, but not for some time (especially in the current climate).
The ambitions of Member States is for the EU to expand its membership. In the UK, my Party has championed enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe. However, those countries joining the EU and subsequently the Schengen area should display the necessary economic, social and judicial infrastructure, and the ability to guard the external border. Countries should not be admitted without transitional controls whilst there is “work in progress”. I say this as much out of concern for the economies of the countries that join. I have spoken to politicians from ‘new’ EU countries such as Poland and Bulgaria who have complained to me that London and the UK is attracting some of their best and brightest people. It is frustrating that they only whisper these concerns and to me and to the British Prime Minister David Cameron while publicly expressing concerns over British attempts to reform freedom of movement, but they are genuinely concerned about the impact that ‘brain drain’ is having on the economic situation in their countries. We should be concerned about this both from the perspective of countries attracting new migrants as well as those losing their brightest and most talented people, when looking at future accession negotiations.
It has been my experience that people believe in fairness. They believe in systems that reward hard work and those who play by the rules. Somewhere along the way in much of northern Europe, something has gone wrong and people are losing support for freedom of movement. I firmly believe that, as politicians, our job is to respond to those concerns by tightening our domestic social security laws, by tackling those who abuse free movement, but most importantly, by showing that many people who move abroad do so with entrepreneurial intent.
I always tell people – as my father used to tell me – that you can achieve whatever you want to as long as you work hard and believe in yourself. If people want to come to my country, work hard, create a business, pay taxes, live by the rules, and employ other people, we should welcome that. The fact that so many people are concerned shows that the system needs reform and improvement, to restore people’s confidence in the functioning of freedom of movement within the EU.
Retrieved from The New European, issue 4