The most lethal word in the English language, in any language really, is “Why?” Why should matters be as they are, as they have always been, are questions not asked often enough. This is not to argue for pointless change. Often the only way to preserve something of value is to ask why we should have it and discover again the reasons for it. Those who bridle at the very idea of challenging some long-established belief or strongly held view do their cause no favours. Challenge is like a strong wind. Only plants with strong roots survive.
The assumption is that Britain must choose between controls on immigration from the EU and membership of the Single Market. Free Movement is, we are told a red line for the EU. Well, yes, it is. But why?
Three reasons: (1) It is essential to the EU’s political project, as set out in the founding treaty. (2) It is essential to the single market and the euro. (3) It is a necessary safety valve for those economies which, unable to provide jobs and opportunities for their own citizens, prefer them to leave and send remittances home than have angry, unemployed and restless young within their borders.
Are these reasons valid? The first is a political choice. A different choice can be made, as it was by some EU countries on the accession of Eastern European states, without any sort of existential harm to the founding treaty. As to the second, is this really the case? Free movement of people is not necessary to enable Amazon to sell books from Luxembourg to Italian customers. It may be necessary for those states within the euro, though fiscal transfers are, as countless economists have pointed out, rather more necessary than the movement of people. And the third is less a choice than a necessity, a necessity required by the failure of some economies within the Eurozone to thrive.
So where does Britain fit in? It has now explicitly voted against (and previously never wanted to be part of) the political project of the EU, of which free movement has become the emblematic symbol. It is not part of the euro. Free movement into and out of Britain is not necessary for the Eurozone to thrive. Nor is it necessary for the single market to exist. It is possible to envisage a single market where goods, services and capital move reasonably freely and labour does not or, rather, moves subject to controls. And controls do not close off the option of a growing economy being open to the unemployed or skilled of another.
Why then should free movement be the price for being a part of the Single Market, a market which benefits all? Well, we know the answer: because that is what EU politicians have said. And they seem to believe it very strongly, to be very stridently insistent on it, in fact. And yet, why this should be so is never articulated very well. It is simply asserted, rather than argued. It is taken as a given, as if this is how the world has to be, can only be, as if the sky would fall in were it otherwise. The more strident the statements, the greater the suspicion that the arguments for it are rather more brittle than its supporters would like to believe. Free movement has become totemic at a time when fences and borders and walls are being built and migration has become the subject of agonised political debates from Calais to Hungary, let alone in Britain.
Well, it is time to ask why. Why should free movement be so sacred? Why shouldn’t there be some controls? Why should the EU insist on forcing states, both inside and out, to do something which their own citizens dislike (the choice is not after all between free movement and no immigration but between free movement and some controls imposed by the country receiving migrants)?
Might the EU’s insistence on it not risk sowing the seeds of its own destruction? Or, less dramatically, might it risk undermining the EU’s ability to achieve or maintain other equally desirable aims? It is time to say that there is no reason why Britain (and others?) should not have (and pay for) the best of what the EU has to offer and avoid those aspects it does not want. No reason other than the choices which have been made and, just as those were made, so different ones can be made now.