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Defend migrants, not the European Union

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The left needs clarity in the Brexit debate. Dave Sewell argues that socialists should defend freedom of movement for migrants—and dump the bosses’ single market
Issue 2560
Marching for migrants rights on the Stand Up To Racism demonstration in March
Marching for migrants’ rights on the Stand Up To Racism demonstration in March (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Ending freedom of movement for European Union (EU) migrants is a vicious attack, despite Theresa May’s miserly offer of a partial and conditional amnesty last week.

People whose right to live in Britain was until now largely secure will have to justify it to a hostile bureaucracy (see below).

There have been two main responses from the left to the war on migrants. Both see ending freedom of movement as an inseparable part of Brexit. For some, including Labour’s left wing leadership, this means accepting its end as inevitable.

For others it means jumping in behind the Labour right, the Lib Dems and the Green Party to frustrate the decision to leave the EU. They want to keep Britain within the EU single market. Its neoliberal rules restrict governments’ rights to implement policies, such as nationalisation, that could interfere with bosses’ profits.

Both routes are dead ends.There’s no reason Brexit has to change Britain’s immigration policy.

Leaving the EU gives the British government leeway to grant more rights to migrants from outside the EU. It doesn’t compel Britain to take rights away from EU nationals. Labour could easily pledge to grant them the same rights under British law that they have under EU rules.

This would be possible—and popular.

May’s announcement, which grants some residency rights, shows the pressure she is under.

Keeping migrants’ rights wouldn’t mean ignoring the referendum result. People voted on Britain’s EU membership, not its immigration policy. While hostility to immigration motivated many Leave voters, it wasn’t the driving force behind the Brexit vote.Many saw it as a chance to hit back at the establishment.

Backing the bosses’ single market is not a price worth paying to guarantee freedom of movement—because it doesn’t guarantee it at all.

The single market’s most committed supporters see freedom of movement as a necessary evil or optional extra.

Their argument is not about migrants’ rights, but the impact that leaving the single market will supposedly have on jobs. 

But bosses always claim that any reform that challenges their interests would cause job losses. If we listened to them there would be no ban on child labour, no safety laws and no minimum wage.

A group of 38 Labour MPs signed a letter last week calling for Britain to stay in the single market. It brought together some of Jeremy Corbyn’s most prominent critics and allowed them to regroup without risking a frontal attack. 

The first signatory is Chuka Umunna, who has proposed immigration reforms in some ways nastier than the Tories’. They include regional visas, which would require internal passport controls.

The letter points out that, “Within the European treaties, free movement is not unconditional.

“At the moment we can require EU citizens to leave if they have no job or a prospect of a job three months after their arrival.

“Restrictions on free movement are explicitly allowed for reasons of ‘public policy, public security or public health’. 

Liechtenstein, which is outside the EU but in the single market, perfectly legally imposes quotas on EU migrants”. 


In other words, neither they nor the single market are on the side of migrants. Nor are leading Lib Dem Vince Cable or Europhile Tory Ken Clarke who have made similar arguments.

The signatories could have added that the single market rules restrict trade union rights. It has even banned unions from campaigning against unequal pay for migrant workers.

They also forgot to add that EU member states only get freedom of movement for their own citizens on the condition that they tighten restrictions on non-EU migrants.

Nor did they mention that there is currently a brutal EU-wide drive to deport planeloads of Afghan.

A central problem for the left is that while there is deep anger at the elites, the racist right often capitalises on it.

Stopping this means explicitly opposing the right wing’s arguments against immigration—and offering a real alternative to the establishment that people are right to hate. That means disentangling people’s justified anger at the EU politicians and bosses from the dangerous racism that scapegoats migrants.

Only this kind of approach can win support for freedom of movement from masses of Leave-voting workers.

Labour needs clarity, not slippage, in defence of migrant workers
Labour needs clarity, not slippage, in defence of migrant workers
  Read More

Tying anti-racism to the defence of the single market fatally undermines it. It tells those already motivated to defend migrants’ rights to rely on institutions that treat them with contempt. It tells those who rightly hate those institutions that the anti-racist left has nothing to offer.

It suits the right and the ruling class to make the question of “soft” versus “hard” Brexit the main dividing line. 

But there’s no reason for the left to be stuck in this false dilemma.

The Brexit vote, Donald Trump ‘s election, and the collapse of mainstream parties in recent French elections all showed old political certainties can be overtuned. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign saw Labour take seats that voted Leave and Remain. This success shows that appealing to working class interests with socialist policies can overcome the Brexit divide.

Staying within the undemocratic and neoliberal single market limits Labour’s ability to offer such policies.

The debate about what type of Brexit is best for “Britain” is really about what policy best suits the  ruling class. 

But workers have different interests—interests that neither side will put forward. We must fight for freedom of movement and against the single market.

May is still using EU migrants as bargaining chips

EU nationals who can prove they have been in Britain for five years may get to apply for residency.

This offer excludes many of the 3 million EU nationals in Britain who haven’t lived here that long. 

Those migrants who arrived before a “cut off” point could only apply for residency after working in Britain for five years. 

The cut off point would be sometime between March 2016 and 2019.

May said it was a “generous offer”, but these rights are conditional. It does not guarantee the rights of migrants who would come here after it. 

But May and her EU counterparts are cynically using their lives as bargaining chips.

As non-EU nationals have found since long before Brexit, the British state makes getting a visa a complex and costly ordeal. 

Here to work? You’ll need an employer willing to sponsor you. 

Outside of certain jobs deemed essential, such as nursing, they must meet strict criteria.

They must show that the position is “skilled”—that is, sufficiently well-paid—and that they’ve tried and failed to find a British person to do the job.


You’re legally at the back of the queue, and few bosses will bother doing the legwork to get you to the front.

Here to join a partner who has got British nationality? You could get a spouse visa—as long as your partner earns enough.

Here to study? Pay all the visa fees and tuition fees, make a life here, and then have it all put in jeopardy as soon as you graduate.

Extending this monstrous system to EU nationals is a vindictive attack on them—and on the whole working class.

For all the talk of migrants driving down wages, there is no hope in hell that ending freedom of movement will drive wages up.

Tougher immigration controls make swathes of the working class more vulnerable, and easier to bully into working for less.

Farm workers declared “illegal” will fear being deported if they speak up. 

Everyone in need of a work visa will feel pressure to keep on their sponsor boss’s good side. 

This is a weapon workers must keep out of their enemies’ hands.

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