Freedom is usually a positive concept. Freedoms are celebrated and defended. Through history, people have fought and died for their freedoms, be it freedom of speech, of association, of assembly, of thought.
How to explain, then, the noxious negativity that is permeating debate on freedom of movement in the context of the EU referendum?
The people who would like us to leave the EU on 23 June have made curtailing our right to move freely around the continent core to their case, and Leave campaigners unsurprisingly jumped on yesterday’s figures showing a rise in net migration to 333,000 in 2015. But misleading statements about immigration are framing free movement as the problem. They falsely imply that, if we stop free movement, everything will be better.
The truth is that government cuts, lack of planning and investment in housing, skills and public services are the real problems – not immigration.
Rather than being feared, free movement is something to welcome. EU citizens in Britain benefit us all. New research from the LSE has confirmed that EU workers make an important net contribution to our economy. They are less likely to claim benefits. They are less likely to use the NHS and other services than people born in Britain. There is no evidence of migrants having an overall negative impact on jobs, wages, housing or public services. As for accusations of EU citizens “taking jobs”, the overall number of jobs has increased. We need to avoid misleading, lazy maths which assumes people without work can easily fit into available jobs, and we need to make sure unemployed people are helped to get the appropriate skills.
Many services depend on migrant workers. In the health service nationally, 17 per cent of workers are not British. The figure is 12 per cent for education and 18 per cent for employees in the finance sector. These figures are higher in London. Here, over a third of NHS doctors are not British and more than half of these are from other EU countries. One in five nurses, midwives and health visitors in London are from the EU. In areas which depend on low-paid migrant workers, like food and agriculture, we need to push for a truly Living Wage for all workers, not scapegoat those who would earn even less in their home countries.
Freedom of movement is a two-way street. More than 1m expat Brits are currently enjoying their right to live elsewhere in Europe. These include more than 300,000 people in Spain, 250,000 in Ireland, and nearly 200,000 in France. EU membership enables students to study in Europe, Brits to seek employment in 27 other EU countries, mixed nationality couples to meet and share their lives, and Brits to retire abroad. Every year more than 10,000 UK students attend European universities and this experience is shown to improve their long-term job prospects. Many Brits contribute to life in other countries and gain perks from doing so, like lower costs of living or better weather.
I respect the choice of British expats to experience life abroad. And I am grateful to the carers, doctors, nurses, teachers, builders and other workers who come to the UK. They are our co-workers, our employers, our business associates, our neighbours, our friends, our family. They are contributors – not freeloaders – and they enrich life in the UK, nowhere more so than London.
People do not only move here for financial reasons. Many will say that they can be themselves in London, whatever their ethnicity, sexual orientation, faith (or none); that they can participate in our rich cultural life and follow their chosen career path. EU citizens help make London the innovative, exciting, creative, welcoming city it is.
Six in every 100 officially recorded couples in London – more than 100,000 in total – are made up of a British national in a relationship with someone of another EU nationality. Our lives are deeply intertwined with our European neighbours, as they are with the rest of the world, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. We are richer in all senses of the word thanks to EU freedom of movement. Like other freedoms, this right should be defended and celebrated and we can do this by voting Remain on 23 June.