Helen De Cruz on why freedom of movement means a lot more to British people than Theresa May and the Brexiteers want them to believe, especially students.

A lot has been said on Theresa May’s queue jumper comments and her non-apology, but one thing has not been looked at in detail, to my knowledge, namely how the British government’s stubborn refusal to understand or correctly represent freedom of movement infantilizes British citizens.

Freedom of movement is a reciprocal right that British citizens also enjoy, and that many have used to work, study, retire in the EU. It is not a special privilege EU citizens enjoy to jump any sort of queue (a queue I might add that May and her ilk have installed and tightened).

For example, I have a very clever student, a British citizen without additional citizenship, who wants to do a master’s, eventually a PhD and he is looking into programmes in the European Union (e.g. Paris) for this. But I had to tell him that I have no idea how it will be with Brexit.

I guess he will still be able to go, thanks to the transitional arrangement, but if there is no deal, then there is also no transitional arrangement!

And after that, how can I advise my students to get the education suited to their needs? What if the UK “cracks down” on EU students?

If we look at how non-EU students are treated (let’s not forget that Theresa May wrongfully deported 48,000 non-EU students under her tenure!), if the EU reciprocates in kind, I will have to tell my British students: “Sorry, you are stuck here!”

In May’s non-apology it became clear she is either very poor at understanding the principles of EU law, or is deliberately misleading in saying that she wants a skilled-based immigration system to replace free movement, with people “judged on their skills”.

I am sorry but what you want, Theresa May, is a system that exactly won’t judge me on my skills! I came to Britain for a job, and I was selected among hundreds of applicants and that judgment was made based on skills!

Free movement makes it easier for my employer to judge me on my skills.  Now, if you make a skill-based visa, then my employer cannot judge me on my skills anymore. Now, my employer (not a super-rich university) will need to consider how much it costs to bring me over.

There is no indication that Theresa May will relax the rules that allow that engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi will be able to come here more easily (to repeat, I did not have any hand in the UK policies that make it so difficult for them to come!).

Or for that matter, I did not have a hand or I did not in any way facilitate the deportation of law-abiding non-EU workers on the basis of an error on their tax returns.

By framing free movement as privilege of some migrants, May is not acknowledging the right British people have, a right that is now taken away. My students resent the fact that their free movement rights are being taken away from them, without their consent.

One of my students said, wistfully: “I was just one month too young to be able to vote in the Referendum. And now my rights are taken away from me.”

Note: My students are not cosmopolitan elites. They are ordinary British citizens at a post-92 university.

How would Theresa May and others look in the mirror, feeling good about themselves, when they have taken away the opportunity of employers to hire people based on skills, taken away the opportunity of British people to go where their skills are needed and wanted?

I have often thought that the much maligned freedom of movement of people is the most important of the four freedoms (movement of goods, services, people and money), the most central to the European project. It is the right of ordinary people, not the government or super-rich companies, to decide who can move where based on skills.

Free movement is not only misunderstood on the Right, but also on the Left, with for example Jeremy Corbyn saying that we make the lives of British workers miserable. In what universe is imposing hurdles for workers to move, a good thing that is empowering for workers?

Are visas so much better for workers? (Answer: no. The H1B visa in the US for instance makes it difficult to move jobs, and hence encourages worker exploitation, e.g. in the software tech sector.) It gives your employer a lot of power over you as a worker.

Free movement for the super-rich has always existed. Free movement for ordinary citizens, not so much. You can pay your way in the UK if you have £2 million to spare. You can jump any queue if you are rich, regardless of skills.

So now, ordinary folks like me with a working-class background and no millions of pounds lying around won’t be able to jump the queue but will be judged on skills, i.e. it will make it more difficult for my employer to hire people based on skills due to visas and other red tape.🔷

Note: A lot has been said, in true classist fashion as is customary here, on EU citizens working for Russell-group universities. But there are also lots of us working in post-92 universities and making a positive difference. It will be a lot harder after Brexit. The UK’s loss.

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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article, with the author’s conscent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)

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(Cover: Flickr/Number 10 - Prime Minister Theresa May holding a reception at Downing Street on antisemitism and antisexism. | 26 Nov 2018. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)