While even the basic statement I’m about to start off with is still somewhat contentious in certain circles, anyone who isn’t trying one on has to admit that immigration played a large part in the vote to leave the EU in 2016. The desire to end freedom of movement – at least, in the direction of people coming from the continent to Britain – was undoubtably one of the big factors in the referendum going the way that it did. What no one wants to talk about is why the desire to end FOM became so strong amongst a certain, key audience.
Liberals don’t want to talk about it because for most of them, immigration is an unquestionable good. So, they fight against the very idea that any aspect of FOM at any point in time could have been bad. Conservatives who are pro-Brexit don’t want to talk about it because it pinpoints a certain time and political action that was specific and not likely to be repeated, not to mention the fault of the UK government and not the EU – thus very possibly ameliorating a certain’s group of people in Britain’s dislike of FOM and indeed, the EU in general. Labour people don’t want to talk about it since it lays the blame at their own party’s door.
It all has to do with 2004, the ascension of ten new states into the European Union, most of them in eastern Europe, and a crucial decision taken by the Blair government that probably changed the course of British history more than anything else that government ever did, which is really saying something.
On May 1, 2004, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia all became members of the European Union. It was a huge expansion of the EU, unlike anything ever seen before – and likely ever again. Partly given the size of the intake and partly because a lot of the new members were economically poorer than any of the already existing members, it was decided that existing member states could offer the new members freedom of movement on a staggered basis. In other words – and here is the part that is crucial to Brexit – individual member states were allowed to decide when they offered FOM to the new members states within a seven year range.
The existing member states could offer FOM right away if they felt like it, as in, from the 1st of May, 2004, citizens of those newly acceded states could have full FOM into their countries immediately. Or, they could wait until a deadline of May 2011 to offer full FOM. In the meantime, individual member states could put in place any restrictions on FOM from the newly acceded ten member states that they wished.
Some, like Germany and Austria, had pretty heavy restrictions in place right up until the 2011 deadline. Others were more lenient – France had five years of heavy restrictions of FOM from the new member states, whereas a two year restriction, sometimes with immigrant limits put in place afterwards up to 2011, were more common.
Only three states decided to lift all meaningful restrictions on FOM from May 1, 2004: Ireland, Sweden and yes, you guessed it, the UK. To be fair, there were some welfare restrictions put in place in the UK, but that was it – apart from that, full FOM was offered to the ten new members states immediately.
This needs to be heavily stressed: the Labour government of the time chose to do this of their own, sovereign will. The EU did not force them to offer full FOM in 2004 as they opted to. It was a decision by the UK government of the time, not the EU.
What happened next was predictable in retrospect. Sweden was never going to be under much threat of a large wave of immigration for several reasons. It is very, very difficult to work in Sweden if you are not fluent in the language and there is a lot of red tape involved if you want to be a tradesman there. Ireland did attract many immigrants, but it was never going to be anywhere near what the UK, a country that had a booming economy, was relatively liberal in terms of ease of setting up a business and had been seen by many as a gateway to the US, was bound to expect.
The New Labour government was intensely naive about all of this at the time. Official estimates of how many immigrants from the ten new member states were expected was collectively around 13,000 per year. How many actually came is a topic of debate – many workers only came to Britain seasonally and returned to their homelands during down season, making it hard to calculate – but over the five year period during which France had heavy FOM restrictions in place, 2004 through 2009, about 1.5 million people from the ten new members states immigrated to the UK.
This was the largest wave of immigration into Great Britain in the nation’s entire history. Places like Boston, which had had a fairly stable make up of residents for over a thousand years, were suddenly welcoming a large influx of immigrants. This changed perceptions of FOM over the next five years in profound ways. Pre-2004, most of the public was broadly fine with freedom of movement. After the large wave of new immigrants from eastern Europe came to the country in numbers never before seen, the mood changed.
Now, I happen to be pro-immigration and passionately pro-FOM. I, like many liberals, can talk about all the economic benefits the eastern Europeans brought post-2004 until your eyes roll back in your head. So, I’m not here to argue against the lifting of any restrictions in 2004 by Labour. You may think it was a good thing, you may think it was a terrible thing. All I’m asking is that it be heavily considered when talking about the issues of immigration and freedom of movement. Because the pro-Brexit right rolled the larger than expected immigration numbers from 2004 through 2009 into a story about how FOM was a dangerous thing as opposed to talking about what really happened, namely, the whole thing was a decision made by the UK government of the time. It was not forced upon Britain, nor was it a condition of remaining in the EU. We could have had strict restrictions on FOM from the ten new member states until 2011 if we wanted, when countries like Germany, which is much closer geographically and culturally to those ascension countries, were also offering full FOM.
It is too late to stop the country voting for and indeed, leaving the EU. I get that. But I still think this is an important thing to talk about going forward. If we want to have a grown up conversation about immigration, it is key to start with what really happened – and whose decision it was to make.
While I’m here, I’ve got a new book coming out in the autumn entitled The Patient. It’s about a woman who goes into the hospital to give birth to her child, being two weeks overdue….and it goes horribly wrong. The book explores themes of xenophobia, sexism and the problems involved in becoming a parent. If you want to find out more, here’s where you can have a better look.