The truth must be told: immigration swung the UK referendum vote against the EU. And some other EU Member States would be likely to vote to leave right now for the same reason.
We cannot dismiss opposition to EU immigration by saying it arises from contempt for “foreigners” and covert racism. We cannot say this, even when it is true, because many opponents of immigration do not see their opposition as xenophobic or racist. We have to get to the heart of the issue that underlies this opposition.
This is the guarantee by the EU treaty of people’s freedom of movement. We all want freedom, but the “free movement of workers”, as the treaty puts it, is not the same kind of freedom as, say, free trade, because it concerns people, not things.
People move from one country to another under the influence of push factors and pull factors. Take UK immigrants to Spain, for example:
- Private income protects many UK immigrants from low Spanish wages. However, UK citizens who emigrate for work find no protection from the EU – it fails to ensure comparable wages.
- On job availability, the EU seeks to neutralise push and pull factors by investing directly in infrastructure in more deprived regions of the EU like Spain.
- High-cost urban living pushes UK immigrants to Spain.
- Lower-cost rural living pulls UK immigrants toward parts of Spain.
- On health and capital transfers, the EU seeks to neutralise push and pull factors by ensuring broadly comparable health care via the EHIC health card and by guaranteeing the freedom of movement of capital.
Entirely comparable factors determine whether a mainland European will choose to move to the UK. Other factors like the weather also play some role. But mainlanders come in significant numbers to the UK primarily to find work. If job availability is higher in the UK and pay higher, then mainlanders may be prepared to forsake their families, friends and communities. In other words, people are pushed out of EU countries where governments allow low pay and low investment to continue.
That is where the EU now must act if the union is to endure. Speedy action would change the minds of people in the UK about the EU. Not all, but enough to prevent Brexit.
The wages gap
The EU statistics body, EuroStat, gives the monthly net median wage as €686 in Poland, €569 in Lithuania and €375 in Bulgaria. For the UK, this median wage is up to six times higher (€2,389). But all the Labour Party said on EU immigration in its 2015 General Election manifesto was: “We will secure reforms to immigration and social security rules, as well as pushing for stronger transitional controls”. Today, Jeremy Corbyn demands “the maintenance of existing employment and social rights”. This is too little – he only has in mind rights for UK workers.
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The UK is close to the exit but it has two years – and some say 10 years – to change things. So let’s go back to basics.
The European Union treaty provides for four “freedoms of movement” for capital, goods, services – and workers:
- Freedom of movement for workers shall be secured within the Union
- Such freedom of movement shall entail the abolition of any discrimination
- It shall entail the right, subject to limitations justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health: a) to accept offers of employment actually made; b) to move freely within the territory of Member States for this purpose; c) to stay in a Member State for the purpose of employment; d) to remain in the territory of a Member State after having been employed
Clause 3 allows qualification of the freedom of movement when this is justified by public policy. This now needs to be activated.
An important public policy now adopted (but not implemented) in the UK is the Living Wage. At the European TUC in 2014, the current European Parliament president Martin Schulz (SPD) demanded an EU Living Wage and condemned “wage-dumping”. He said: “One cornerstone of a social market economy is that everyone in work must be able to earn a living wage”. LivingWageNow.eu now campaigns against wage-dumping.
Delivering a living wage to all EU citizens would remove the main push factor that drives emigration from low-wage Member States. Look at the graph on minimum wages across the EU. Six Member States have no minimum. The other 22 Member States are in three groups with lower, intermediate and higher minimum wages. Those in Group 1 drive their citizens most frequently to support their families with income from jobs in Group 3.
Minimum wages (€ per month) in EU22 (orange) and others (yellow) January 2016.
We need to press urgently for a living wage to become public policy for the EU. We should have done it years ago. Of course, achieving the Living Wage for the EU28 cannot happen overnight. But each Member State can set targets based on cost of living and tax and benefits structure.
An EU-harmonised Living Wage law should set a level that causes emigration from one Member State to another to become truly a matter of free choice. It will make the freedom of movement a genuine freedom – not a cynical cover for bad practices by bad employers. It will end the undercutting of wages in Group 1 countries that provokes hostility toward the victims.
Some time is needed to agree a formula for and to achieve a Harmonised Living Wage. For the duration, immigrating EU citizens should be granted a residence visa when moving for work. This visa would leave the Schengen area intact. Enforcement would be a national competence. Nationalism would lose its main weapon.
The Labour Party is well placed to press for such reform alongside the EU’s Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and to make an effort to mitigate the disaster of the Brexit vote.
Undercutting of UK wages was one of the concrete concerns that led 52% of UK voters to back Brexit. Tackle that issue across the EU – along with poor housing – and you start to have a freedom for the people, not just for business.
Martin Yuille is a Reader at the University of Manchester. His main research interests are in Public Health and human genetics. He is a member of the Labour Party and sits on his branch executive and the executive of Scientists for Labour, both of which campaigned vigorously against Brexit.