This is what free movement means to me

Brexit will only limit UK students' opportunities to study in Europe | Copyright: iStock
Brexit will only limit UK students' opportunities to study in Europe | Copyright: iStock

By Dave Chadwick

I flunked my A-levels badly. It was self-imposed failure, really. I was fed up with the sausage-factory approach to exams and decided to give the system a bloody nose by doing no work. This had absolutely no effect on the system and lots of effect on me.

I spent the next two years working in Asda and call centres while I tried to work out what to do. In the process I found a course I could actually get onto at Leiden University in the Netherlands. The UK's membership of the EU meant I could study there at a fraction of the price charged to students from outside the bloc.

It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I worked hard, spent semesters in Paris, Oxford and Mannheim and learned several European languages, including Dutch, which then helped me to get a job in data protection in Belgium. More importantly, I also met some of my best friends. I'm now 26 and living in Antwerp. The decisions which allowed me to take this path were only possible - financially and legally - because of free movement.


Without the EU I wouldn't have been able to do any of this. I struggle to see how Brexit will widen opportunities for young Brits in the UK or those already in Europe and can see only how it will narrow them, which presumably is why it is almost universally opposed by them.

Take Jenny, who's 21 and just finishing a three-year course to become a live events manager.  She was born in the UK but raised and schooled in France. Her dream job is to travel across Europe managing band tours. When she graduates she will benefit from free movement until the end of the transition period, assuming we get one, and then she'll be landlocked with next to no chance of getting a job when up against candidates from the EU who still enjoy free movement. 

Her younger sister, 19-year old Emily, is in an equally uncertain position. She managed to get into the Rotterdam School of Management. The local fees are expensive enough, at €2,000 per year. But they become properly exorbitant if you're from outside the EU. Right now, her UK passport secures her the lower price. When she applies for her Masters in December, she has no idea whether those local rates will still apply.

Contrary to what the Brexiters say, the EU has never been a project of the elites but a mechanism for opening doors and creating opportunities from people from all walks of life. Rich people will always be able to live, work and send their kids abroad to study. It’s the less well-off who won’t. The benefits of EU membership have been woefully undersold in the UK, but the truth is it opened a series of doors, many of which are now being slammed in the faces of the generation who want and need them the most.

That's why losing free movement would be such a huge blow to young Brits in Europe. I’m from Gloucester and, as things stand, Old Spot Pork and Double Gloucester cheese will be able to travel more easily across EU borders than I will.

David Davis acknowledged the impact of Brexit on British retirees in Europe the other day. There's a sense that only Brits above the age of 65 live on the continent. But the truth is there are countless thousands like me. Eighty percent of Brits living in the EU are working age or younger. And it's us who will be hit hardest by its loss. The Brexit secretary would know that if he’d bothered to meet us.

But this isn’t just about economics. Free movement has also been the emotional glue that has held Europe together since the end of the Second World War. I mentioned friendship earlier and that’s very much what free movement means to a lot of young Brits and Europeans.  A hundred years ago I would have been fighting against German boys my own age.  These days some of my best friends are German and it’s inconceivable to us that we'd ever be in conflict.

A trading bloc alone didn't deliver this. It was the relationships that sit on top of it that have helped Europe to stay peaceful for 70 years after a thousand years of conflict. In the centenary year of the end of the Great War, the EU Commission has just proposed doubling the Erasmus budget to allow more young people to experience life in another EU country. This is what solidarity and freedom look like. It is cruel and blinkered for the British government to be taking it away from its young people.

Dave Chadwick is a member of British in Europe. Originally from Gloucester, he now lives and works in Antwerp in Belgium.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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