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Freedom of movement – Pain but no gain

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by Paul Willner and Neil Schofield-Hughes


Freedom of movement is usually presented in the media as being about immigration to the UK – ending freedom of movement implying curbing immigration. But too many forget that it works both ways. The Government’s decision to do away with freedom of movement means that British citizens have lost rights too.

The loss of our freedom of movement means that, as UK citizens, we no longer have the right to live in any of the 27 EU countries. With freedom of movement we could live and work anywhere in the EU. Now we cannot. 

You may think that this loss of freedom is only a matter for a select few, but it affects us in many ways – as business people, as lorry drivers, as students, as artists, as holiday makers. The list is long.   

A UK citizen who wants to travel to the EU can stay there for a maximum of 90 days in any 180 days. This applies across all 27 EU countries (so spending time in France would count against spending time in Italy or Spain). Forget the dream of retiring to the sunny south – it is no longer possible.

If you are travelling for business, even just to attend a single meeting, you may need a visa and there may be additional paperwork to complete, potentially for each EU country you visit.  That includes people travelling for artistic or cultural purposes. And your professional qualifications may no longer be recognised.

The empty shelves in our shops, as well as the higher prices for the goods that manage to get here, are a consequence of other restrictions on the haulage sector. UK hauliers now need a license to drive their truck in Europe, and not enough of those licenses are available. 

And once in Europe, cabotage has been abolished [1 ]. This means that having dropped their load, truck drivers can no longer pick up loads to drop off as they travel back across Europe. So the cost of haulage to Europe has increased dramatically, making it impossible for some haulage companies to continue working. This rule also makes it impossible for bands or orchestras to tour, stopping for shows in different towns.

A particularly pernicious effect of the loss of freedom of movement is that language students, who have to spend a year of their degree working abroad, can no longer spend that year in the EU. This will inevitably lead to a collapse in the number of language students, and so to the availability to schools of language teachers. 

In the longer term, our children will suffer from this barrier to learning European languages. Already school exchanges, which for many children represent their first exposure to other cultures, are drying up because of the difficulty of meeting entry requirements [2].

There are also severe consequences for UK citizens who have been living in the EU. These had the opportunity to apply for resident status which, if granted, meant they could remain in the country where they have been living. But many UK citizens living in southern Spain either forgot to apply or thought nothing would happen if they didn’t, and now are having to return to the UK because they are no longer allowed to remain in their homes for more than 90 days at a time [3]. Those who do now have resident status can stay where they are, but they have lost the right to live and work in any of the other 26 EU countries – just like the rest of us. 

The above are all major restrictions on freedoms that we have enjoyed for nearly half a century as EU citizens. Their loss was always one of the dangers that Brexit posed, and confirmation of that loss in all its dimensions represents a massive failure in the negotiation of the Brexit deal. 

Adding insult to injury we have to put these losses alongside other restrictions and inconveniences: 

  • not being able to use EU passport gates when entering EU countries, having instead to endure long queues to use the ‘other nationalities’ gates 
  • the requirement to produce documents at the border relating to our stay, including proof that we have enough money 
  • the fact that old pet passports are no longer valid 
  • and that mobile phone providers are now entitled to charge extra for both calls and data.  

Against this catalogue of negatives, what have we gained? Several arguments were advanced by those who wanted to end freedom of movement. Few if any stand scrutiny. 

  • First was the canard that large numbers of immigrants were taking away jobs and undercutting wages. 

Several research studies agree that the effect of immigration on jobs and wages is tiny, and impacts mostly on other migrants [4]. The Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee concluded that immigration has “no or little impact on the overall employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce”[5].

Far from taking away jobs, immigrants did jobs that UK workers are unwilling to take on, such as in agriculture, hospitality and care homes, where there are now crippling shortages of staff [6]. Even committed Brexit supporters such as Tim Martin, the boss of Wetherspoons, are calling for more EU migrants to be allowed in to staff their businesses! [7]

  • Second was the belief that freedom of movement put an intolerable strain on public services – an argument that seems embarrassing in the face of the strains caused by Covid.  

EU migrants to the UK were always mainly young, healthy, educated and in work. As such, they paid taxes, which helped to pay for the services we enjoy. Every research study has shown that EU migrants put more into the UK economy than they took out. EU students alone contributed almost £30B annually [8], until their numbers plummeted this year. 

EU freedom of movement was never a free-for-all. It was never a free pass to take advantage of public services in another country, but simply a freedom to work there. A  migrant within the EU has three months to find a job in another country, and if unsuccessful can be repatriated back to their country of origin. For reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, the UK Government never exercised its right to repatriate migrants who are not economically active [9]. The Government had the power to control immigration to prevent any burden on public services – but chose not to use it.

  • Last, but not least in its dishonest and unscrupulous use, was the notion that there are too many people in this country. 

It was always the case that EU citizens were free to enter the UK at will, provided they did not place a burden on services. But at the same time the Government had untrammelled power to control immigration from outside the EU. Yet far from controlling it, over the 20-year year period leading up to 2016 non-EU net migration –  immigration minus emigration – doubled [10]. The Government talked endlessly about controlling immigration but didn’t actually do it. 

And the story continued after the referendum. Since 2016, EU net migration has fallen by around 75 per cent, while in 2020 non-EU net migration increased to its highest level ever, with overall immigration approaching an all-time record high [11].If the population of this country is too high, abolishing freedom of movement has done nothing to reduce it. 

  • In short, abolishing freedom of movement has not improved working conditions, it has simply created shortages of labour; it has not improved access to public services, which are close to collapse; and far from decreasing immigration, immigration continues to rise. 


We have to ask: Why have we done this to ourselves?



  1. https://musiceducation.global/cabotage-sabotage-uk-touring-crippled-by-brexit-deal/
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jun/04/school-trips-to-uk-from-eu-could-halve-brexit-hits-cultural-exchanges
  3. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/brit-expats-leaving-spain-droves-25126419
  4. https://fullfact.org/immigration/immigration-and-jobs-labour-market-effects-immigration/
  5. https://www.camecon.com/blog/ending-freedom-movement-wrong-answer-wrong-question/
  6. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/brexit-immigration-rules-cbi-uk-b1874554.html
  7. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2021/06/01/wetherspoons-boss-calls-eu-migration-tackle-bar-staff-shortage/
  8. https://thepienews.com/news/internationals-contribute-28-8bn-to-uk-economy-yearly/
  9. https://ukandeu.ac.uk/we-can-control-eu-migration-we-just-havent-done-it/
  10. https://www.migrationwatchuk.org/statistics-net-migration-statistics/#create-graph
  11. https://www.migrationwatchuk.org/statistics-net-migration-statistics