By Caroline Lucas
The debate around migration in Britain has long been toxic, but it's become increasingly desperate in the last few weeks. From Vote Leave’s absurd claims that Turkey is about to join the EU (along with their implicit threat of millions of Turkish people coming to Britain) to scare stories about hoards of foreign criminals arriving in the UK – it's been a one-way deluge of negativity about free movement.
What's been notable about the debate is that while some, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, have been willing to defend free movement, it's all too often felt half hearted. Virtually no-one has passionately articulated a positive case for our right to live, work, study and retire across an entire continent. Instead we’ve seen the Leave campaign sowing the seeds of division, with far too little response from Remain. The fact is that not only do we enjoy the right to settle anywhere from Poland to Portugal, our society and our economy are much richer because people come here to make a life for themselves. Instead of apologising for free movement, we should be celebrating it - and making it work for everyone.
The NHS is a prime example of how free movement helps Britain. 100,000 health professionals in the UK are from other EU countries. You'll have met some of them because they've treated you, or someone you love. Perhaps it was one of the 937 German doctors, one of the hundreds of Romanian midwives or the thousands of Polish people who work right across the NHS. Of course, quick changes in population can have an effect of queues in doctor’s surgeries and at hospitals – but the fact is that our health service would be in dire straits if EU nationals weren’t treating our sick and frail every day.
If we remain in the EU we need to do more than begrudgingly accept free movement in exchange for being part of the single market. We must also be honest about the positives it brings. Failing to do so not only lets the government off the hook for the real challenges we face, but also allows pernicious myths to continue circulating – and seep into our national consciousness. It’s downright reckless at this stage for so-called progressives to be suggesting controls on free movement within the EU – something that would require treaty change and agreement from all EU countries.
We also need to make free movement work for everyone because, let's face it, the benefits haven't been shared evenly. It's easy for politicians to ignore how rapid changes in population can cause localised pressure on services, and that employers can drive down wages when the workforce expands rapidly. But let's not think for a second that new arrivals should be blamed for these challenges – or that the government can’t act to solve them.
The government could make freedom of movement work better for everyone by sharing the benefits fairly and making sure nobody loses out. In the first instance that means extra support to local areas with lots of new arrivals – by ring-fencing the substantial overall economic gains from migration and investing in local services. That means not only reinstating a version of the migration impact fund but putting rocket boosters on it – and seriously redistributing the wealth some parts of the country enjoy as a result of free movement.
We must also raise and enforce the minimum wage so everybody can afford a better quality of life. In the longer term we need to look at a way of enforcing minimum wage standards across the continent – with levels set appropriately for each country.
We also need to be honest about the choices we face. People will always want to come to Britain as long as we continue to do relatively well economically and, crucially, the new arrivals are a vital part of that story. If we shut the borders it won’t just be our multicultural society which suffers, our finances will be hit too. We must also be honest about the fact that closed borders for EU nationals may mean that British people can no longer easily live, work and retire abroad.
And let's remember at every moment in this debate how it feels for the EU nationals living here. I know that many of them are scared of the toxic mood that's now infected our politics – and the repercussions it could have on their lives.
So let's celebrate free movement and the benefits it brings both here in the UK and for UK citizens working and retiring abroad. Let's refuse to retreat from being the inclusive and welcoming country we have long been. And let's make this positive feature of our EU membership work for everyone in Britain.
Caroline Lucas is the former leader of the Green party and MP for Brighton Pavilion.
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