Perhaps the greatest thing to come to surface since the idea of universal franchise is the idea of freedom of movement. The prospect that we are able to trade goods across borders, and both people and capital can permeate these boundaries without restriction benefits each any every citizen of this country. For every one of us who booked a holiday anywhere in the EU this summer, needing nothing more than a passport and a little cash for some souvenirs; for every one of us who will be taking a year out during or after university to travel around Europe or Asia; for every one of us who buys goods on eBay or Amazon or a couple of goodies from LoveHoney- we can direct our ‘thank you’ cards to the founders of the European Union.
However, it would seem that many among us are feeling something decidedly different to gratitude. The last six months in European politics have reared some ugly truths about popular opinions on this previously embraced ideology. In the run up to the May general election, it seemed the topic of freedom of movement and immigration was impossible to escape. From Miliband to Cameron to Farage (let’s ignore spineless Clegg) it was a Chinese whisper. Each of these political figures’ narrative of the migrant worker or asylum seekerliving in the UK differed slightly but they came from the exact same body of thought.
The narrative is one where of the migrant worker – or immigrant, depending on who you ask – as a burden on the British tax payer: ‘they are taking our jobs, scrounging off our benefits system and are making it difficult for young Brits to compete fairly on the job market’. This is not just what our elected public representatives are telling us. It is also what shows like Benefits Street, Benefits Britain and the like also echo. The big, bad media has been very helpful in fanning this fire and ensuring the migrant’s image gains plenty of tract in public discourse. But if there is no smoke without fire, what does this say about us?
At best, it says that we are simply a country that has been led astray by groups with vested interests in criminalising and scapegoating the migrant worker or asylum seeker in the UK. A simple statistical search will show us that foreign workers make up about 15% of the current work force, and of that number less than 3% have claimed any kind of benefit. Such a search also shows that industries like meat processing, hospitality, and care (to name a few) are all struggling to find workers to fill positions in order to operate and therefore rely heavily on migrant workers. This is not because migrant workers are ‘scamming’ the system to attain jobs, with the promise of working at ridiculously low wages. A big part of the issue is that domestic workers for one reason or another do not seem to find these jobs desirable. The focus needs to be directed on exploring the reasons for the undesirability of these positions. Low wages are no doubt a part of this puzzle. Another is British youth lacking skill set sought in high skilled jobs like engineering and medicine.
Perhaps our willingness to buy into this propaganda also indicates an inner truth about us. It is said that drunk words are sober thoughts: could it be that the reality of post-financial crisis Britain is pre-financial crisis Britain’s true stance revealing itself? That is certainly something worth exploring, although the optimist in me fears that answer.
If it is true that Britain has transitioned in this manner, we are perhaps erring on the side of hypocrisy. After all, it was not too long ago when we had a thriving economy and could not praise foreign workers enough for doing the jobs that we did not want to do. In the early 2000s, the idea of free movement along with free markets were brandished as the key to economic prosperity. The UK in particular was respected as one of the most welcoming members of the European Union and an example to be followed. The global financial crisis changed all that.
It is not so much that migration is now ‘out of control’ as popular talk would have you believe. It is more that we have less in our pockets, and are so fearful and suspicious that we perceive any outsider as someone The inconvenient truth is that there are just as many Britons abroad as there are foreign nationals on these shores. That is the beauty our treaty with the European Union: it is quid pro quo.
We are dangerously close to gaining the reputation of being a nation of hostile, inward-looking protectionists. It is not a title that I, for one, want. I also quite like being able to travel freely and have the opportunity if I so wish to work anywhere in the EU whether it’s for myself or someone else. I think it’s a neat little perk that few would be willing to give up. If we are going to remain members of the EU, it’s high time that we start being team players again and staying true to the oath of free movement of goods, people and capital that we took when we accepted our membership in the first place.