Avoiding a winners-take-all union

First published on Progressonline

This week we have seen the perfect storm for Tory backbenchers, aided and abetted by the rightwing press, as immigration and Europe have dominated the news, prompting more knee-jerk rhetoric from David Cameron.

The prime minister and home secretary Theresa May have both flirted with caps that are no doubt illegal or other restrictions on the freedom of movement that would damage jobs and growth across Europe as a whole. The idea, supported this week by nearly 80 Tory MPs to abolish freedom of movement for countries with a below average GDP, would lead to an overheating of the higher GDP European nations and a permanent two-speed Europe.

Freedom of movement is not only an important principle of the European project, it is integral to the economics of a continent that need to trade more with itself and more with the rest of the world. It is freedom of movement that provides the counterbalance to free movement of capital.

While Bulgarians and Romanians will be able to travel freely to the UK from the 1 January 2014, for at least seven years British companies have been able to operate freely in the Bulgarian and Romanian economies. All are able to profit in the new accession countries and repatriate that success back to the UK.

While this may be is good for UK plc, restrictions on freedom of movement restrict Bulgaria and Romania’s opportunity to send the profits of their labour back to their home country and remaining family. Those working in Britain’s low-wage economy – that domestic workers refuse to participate in – do so often because it is temporary in nature and part of buying a home for their families or a university education for the next generation. That is, using the freedom of movement as a means of social mobility, not a lifestyle choice to come and live in the UK for the bogus benefit tourism arguments presented by the right.

Without both the flow of labour and capital, the European Union is a winners-take-all union, where the big economies exploit the low wages of the new entrants to the free market.

That’s why we should be working together to make Europe a more equal and balanced union. Allowing us to grow together and share in each other’s prosperity is the progressive way forward and the best guarantee of jobs and growth for Britain.

It’s in Labour’s DNA to want to bring about a fairer and more prosperous Britain where the gap between rich and poor gets narrower and not further apart. It should not be simply a romantic view of internationalism that leads Labour to want the same between European citizens.

Sadly, today’s parliamentary debate will tell us more about how David Cameron’s mission to stop the Tory party ‘banging on’ about Europe has failed and how even that most basic of Conservative principles, the freedom of movement of goods and labour, has been jettisoned by a party now obsessed with the United Kingdom Independence party rather than Britain’s national interest.

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Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress

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Photo: European Parliament

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