You may take our EU, but you will never take our Freedom

Of movement, that is. It is hard to describe the feeling of dejection, and the frustration with my fellow countrymen, that I felt as the results of the EU referendum became clear. The people of the UK had voted to leave the European Union. The one question going round and round in my head without respite, was “Why?”.

I appreciate that the benefits of Freedom of Movement that I have enjoyed, are certainly not typical of the average British citizen, and are certainly of the more obvious in nature. In the December of 2007, I applied for a role within the organisation that I was working, the details of which were shrouded in secrecy, and related to a project only referred to in code names. By the time I learned that I had been successful in landing the job, I was already en route to visit my parents’ house in the Charente region of France, where we would have our family get together over Christmas.

It was explained to me that I was joining a project that was urgent in nature, and would I be able to start in Heidelberg, Germany, on the first working day in January. After Christmas, in those days we used to go for a week’s skiing in the Alps over New Year’s. My brothers and I would normally drive home through France and into Belgium, crossing by ferry from Zeebrugge to Hull. This time, we would detour through Germany to drop me off to start the next chapter of my life, and they would continue on their way.

It was, without doubt, the best team of people I have ever worked with, and while fascinating to learn so much about the cultural differences between us, it was what we shared that brought us together

The project I was working on was the establishment of a new internet savings bank in Germany, for a UK bank (by way of passporting arrangements that the UK is set to lose), and ultimately led to me living in Berlin for five years, and a number of shorter stints across Europe in places like Madrid, Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam, and Haarlem.

If I were to have to pick the single best thing about the experience, rather than the places I would see, it would be the people that I worked with. I think at one point we worked out that our project team, of fewer than sixty, was comprised of people from 12 different countries. It was, without doubt, the best team of people I have ever worked with, and while fascinating to learn so much about the cultural differences between us, it was what we shared that brought us together – outward looking, progressive but most importantly just the desire to be kind, supportive and to get the most out of life.

This reinforces the ironic fact that the people most averse to migration from the EU, are those who do not experience it

I am not surprised that parts of the UK that experience high levels of international tourism or where migrants choose to settle, are the areas that voted resoundingly to remain in the EU. Edinburgh, where 16% of the population are non British born, home to the world’s largest arts festival, draws 38.5% of its visitors from overseas, voted 74.4% to remain. Correspondingly, those areas that experience the least migration or tourism are those that voted most strongly to leave. Stoke-on-Trent, with over 96% of the population British born, and fewer than 4% of tourists coming from overseas, voted 69.4% to leave.

This reinforces the ironic fact that the people most averse to migration from the EU, are those who do not experience it. A fear of the unknown perpetuated by unethical newspapers, that take advantage of people’s insecurities. If the people who voted to leave on grounds of “taking back control” of our borders, had had the opportunity that I had to live among, and work with, people from across Europe, they would understand that, just like them, these are just people with hopes and aspirations. There are no significant numbers of people looking to take advantage of UK benefits programmes. And if we were honest with ourselves, we would realise that UK benefits are not particularly generous by European standards, so would not draw people for that reason.

If the UK is unable to reach a trade deal with the EU before leaving the single market, then WTO rules would apply – where tariffs reach as high as 160% on food.

The main source of my frustration on the approach that the Government is taking is that they have constructed a mandate where none exists. The question that the British public were asked was “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”.

There was no question about what the new relationship with Europe should look like, or if we should additionally exit the European Economic Area altogether, by leaving the single market, and the customs union. Leading Leave advocates argue that halting European immigration was implicit in the campaign, and thereby derive their mandate for the so-called “hard Brexit”. By that same argument, I also assume that the mandate is predicated on the promises for £350 million a week for the NHS, no change in the Irish border, and trade benefits equal to current arrangements from the day of exit. Given that it is a certainty that the Government will fail to deliver on at least two of these, I would argue that there is no mandate for the relationship the Government is trying to pursue.

The Liberal Democrats have consistently called upon the Government to give the British people a say on the final EU deal

Freedom of movement is fundamental to the success of the British economy – through it we maintain our ability to be a member of the single market and customs unions, which account for 44% of British exports. A number of industries are dependent on access to workers from the EU. The UK imports 46% of its food, 70% of which comes from the EU. If the UK is unable to reach a trade deal with the EU before leaving the single market, then WTO rules would apply – where tariffs reach as high as 160% on food. This would have a very significant impact on household finances, but more significantly are the implications for food exports from the UK to the EU, where industries are facing wipe out if they are unable to price their food competitively on the continent due to these same tariffs.

There are many other reasons why I believe we must campaign tirelessly to maintain freedom of movement, which I intend to explore in future posts, but for now I have set out that there is no democratic mandate for the arrangement that the Government is pursuing. In addition, to go down this path will wreak untold damage to the UK economy and the quality of life for people in this country will suffer as a result. The Liberal Democrats have consistently called upon the Government to give the British people a say on the final EU deal, with the option of choosing to remain a member of the union if they do not like the proposed arrangements. This is the only fair way that the Government can proceed, as the previous referendum was based on lies, and is being used as a mandate for something that was not voted on. Only once the British people truly understand the implications of exit, and what that exit actually looks like, does this Government have the mandate that it seeks.

 


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