As people scurry about trying to figure out just what Brexit might mean in reality, much of the focus has centred on the Single Market and the free movement of people. Most Remainers and probably a majority of Leavers seem to want the UK to stay in the Single Market. This makes a great deal of sense, as the EU will remain our largest trading partner. However the Single Market has never been just a free trade area, contrary to the myths propagated by eurosceptics. From its beginning in the 1950s, the Single Market (formerly known as the Common Market) has had at its heart the commitment to the Four Freedoms – the free movement of goods, services, money and people. This is what every country signed up to when they joined the EU. Even those countries, such as Norway, which are not in the EU, but are in the Single Market have to sign up for all of the four pillars, including the free movement of people.
Yet this did not stop many in the Leave campaign from claiming that with Brexit the UK could stay in the Single Market, yet somehow opt out of the free movement of people. Now, post referendum we have almost a bandwagon of people on the left joining in. The latest to do so includes Stephen Kinnock and Seema Malhotra from the Labour party. In an article for the New Statesmen they argue that somehow the UK can impose controls on immigration for EU states, yet remain in the Single Market.
It is rather disappointing that so many people from the left are so quick and willing to advocate limiting the free movement of people from the rest of the EU. So much for the great internationalist traditions of Labour. It seems Labour will stoop as low as it can to appease voters in its former heartlands. Nothing of benefit tends to come from appeasement. The undoubted hardships for many across the UK do not come from immigrants, but from the failures of successive UK governments, including Labour governments. But this not something most Labour party members are willing to discuss. Much easier to just blame immigrants and the EU.
However at this moment the key question is whether restrictions on the free movement of people is even remotely possible. I would suggest it is not. This for the simple reason that the Single Market is a package and the moment you start to demand exceptions the whole thing will very quickly collapse.
The UK wants to keep three of the four pillars of the Single Market – the free movement of goods, services and money – but to establish restrictions on the other pillar, the free movement of people. Which is fine and dandy for the UK and any other member state that has similar concerns. But what about the other member states?
Let us take the free movement of services. For most commentators this seems to equate to protecting the financial sector and the City of London in particular. As Stephen Kinnock and Seem Malhotra put it: The UK should protect its financial services industry, including passporting rights, vital to our national prosperity. Leave aside for the moment just why the Labour party should have suddenly become the saviours and protectors of financial services. Instead ask, why would all the other 27 member states agree to this? If exceptions are to be made to the four pillars, why not to the free movement of services? What if Germany and France for example were to demand restrictions on passporting rights? Or what if some member states wanted the right to impose restrictions on the free movement of goods or money?
I other words once you start demanding concessions on one pillar of the Single Market, you are effectively calling for the end of the Single Market. If the UK can demand and get concessions on what it wants, there will no argument for denying this right to all the other member states. If the Single Market is beneficial to the UK, which I believe it is, then you accept all its terms and conditions. You cannot expect to pick and choose and not expect others to do the same. As Angela Merkel has made clear the UK will not get to cherry pick the bits of the Single Market it likes.
The UK once again seems to be reduced to pleading for special treatment. At the same time ignoring the concerns of the other 27 member states. We should be given everything we want and they rest should just sign on the dotted line. This line of thinking seems to ignore that the EU has repeatedly made concessions to the UK. The opt outs on Schengen and the euro for example. David Cameron also managed to get some, admittedly minor, concessions for the recent referendum. All to no avail, a majority in England and Wales still voted to leave. So what incentive do the other 27 member state for offering further concessions? Appeasement does not seem to work. It is time to get real about this. Talk of ending free movement of people yet staying in the Single Market is just that – all talk and no substance.