Considering the tone of the political rhetoric in the last few months, the positions of the main parties on the topic of free movement of EU citizens seem less salient that one would have expected.
EU citizens or ‘EU migrants’?
It is worth stating from the outset that when we discuss free movement of people inside the European Union (EU) we are not referring to migration from a legal point in view. Indeed, the term ‘EU migrants’ often used by the media may define a sociological reality (an individual crossing a border between two countries with the intention to reside in the host -country) but it is legally incorrect. EU citizens (the nationals of any of the 28 Member States) have an individual and fundamental right to move and reside anywhere in the EU provided that they are working or self-employed or, if not performing an economic activity, that they have sufficient resources and medical insurance. This freedom is exercised by both the approximately 2.3 million EU nationals residing in the UK, as well as by the circa 2 million British nationals who reside in the other 27 Member States.
What do the manifestos say?
Three of the manifestos (Labour, Liberal and Green) do not mention the issue of free movement of people in the EU. Labour has lately voiced some ideas on imposing tighter conditions to enjoy this right but these are not echoed in their official election document.
UKIP, in turn, links free movement to its desire to hold a national referendum on the UK´s membership in the EU. Should such a referendum take place, and should UKIP be victorious, they propose to allow any EU citizen already residing in the UK the right to remain and work and apply for UK citizenship after five years. This would arguably be the consequence of a bilateral agreement between UK and the EU (although the manifesto does not mention it), and seems to have in mind the large number of British nationals residing in the EU who would find themselves deprived of their status as EU citizens and of their right to reside in the other 27 Member States should the UK leave the EU.
Finally, the Conservatives´ manifesto is a much toned down version of the pledge Mr Cameron made in November 2014 to change the rules on EU free movement of citizens. Many such measures, as Professor Steve Peers has explained earlier, seem difficult, if not impossible, to put in place not only because they breach EU law as it currently stands but also because reform would require a Treaty amendment or a change in current legislation and hence the agreement of the other Member States.
Why the softened discourse?
What are the reasons for such little weight given to free movement in the major parties’ manifestos? Several reasons may be offered but one could point in the direction of political pragmatism in two regards. First, the acknowledged difficulty of introducing stricter regulation, due to the opposition shown by other countries in the EU to altering the current rules on free movement – considered by many as one of the cornerstones of the whole EU project. Second, the realization that withdrawal from the EU could have negative consequences on various fronts – not only for the important number of Brits residing in the EU – but also for the companies who would not be able to sell their goods or provide their services without restrictions. Switzerland represents an interesting case where the EU has clearly stated that free movement is part of a whole package which includes services and goods, but also people. This cannot be negotiated on a pick and choose basis.
The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the funders of our research.