Four Freedoms at risk

The European Commission is at risk of undermining free movement by its refusal to release documents relating to the ‘emergency brake’ safeguard mechanism on EU migration offered to the UK before the Brexit referendum.

The European Commission, European Parliament and the heads of most European governments – most notably Angela Merkel – have been at pains since the referendum result to explain that the ‘four freedoms’ of the single market – freedom of goods, capital, people and services – have to go together.

The attempt to ‘cherry-pick’ aspects of single market membership by the UK has been called unacceptable and dangerous for the future of the European Union itself. Yet a deal made before the referendum risks undermining the EU’s staunch defense of the unity of the four freedoms, unless more details about it are released.

Niccolò Milanese, Chair of European Alternatives

Back in February 2016, 4 months before the UK referendum, the heads of state met in the European Council to decide what deal to offer to David Cameron for a ‘new settlement for the UK within the EU’, or ‘reformed relationship’ between the UK and the EU in the case the UK decided to remain. A core part of this deal was the ‘safeguard mechanism’ for excluding from in-work benefits EU workers coming to the UK for up to 4 years, if it could be proved that an ‘exceptional’ inflow of EU workers was such that it puts pressure on ‘essential aspects of the social security system’, leads to persistent difficulties in the labour market or puts ‘excessive’ pressure on public services. The safeguard mechanism was derided by many in favour of Brexit as far too weak at the time, and in any case the European Council has been clear that the deal that was offered to the UK if it had voted ‘remain’ is now null and void. What is problematic is that in the same European Council conclusions of February 2016, the European Commission states

The European Commission considers that the kind of information provided to it by the United Kingdom, in particular as it has not made full use of the transitional periods on free movement of workers which were provided for in recent Accession Acts, shows the type of exceptional situation that the proposed safeguard mechanism is intended to cover exists in the United Kingdom today. Accordingly, the United Kingdom would be justified in triggering the mechanism in the full expectation of obtaining approval. (Annex VI)

What this means is that the Commission considers that the UK government has provided conclusive evidence that the number of EU workers coming to the UK does in fact pose a threat to the social security system, lead to persistent difficulties in the labour market, or put excessive pressure of public services. That is highly surprising, because up until recently the European Commission said the opposite, the academic literature on the question is far from conclusive and strongly tends towards suggesting that EU migrants to the UK are beneficial to the economy and public services, and even the UK government in its review of competences of the EU was forced to admit that the situation is not clear cut.

What this means is that the Commission considers that the UK government has provided conclusive evidence that the number of EU workers coming to the UK does in fact pose a threat to the social security system, lead to persistent difficulties in the labour market, or put excessive pressure of public services. That is highly surprising, because up until recently the European Commission said the opposite, the academic literature on the question is far from conclusive and strongly tends towards suggesting that EU migrants to the UK are beneficial to the economy and public services, and even the UK government in its review of competences of the EU was forced to admit that the situation is not clear cut.

I made a freedom of information request to the Commission before the referendum to find out, but the Commission turned down my request on the basis that they cannot release information relevant to ongoing decision-procedures. I found that unfortunate, because surely in the run up to the referendum one of the main actors taking a decision and in need of reliable information and evidence was the British people?

So what is this evidence? I made a freedom of information request to the Commission before the referendum to find out, but the Commission turned down my request on the basis that they cannot release information relevant to ongoing decision-procedures. I found that unfortunate, because surely in the run up to the referendum one of the main actors taking a decision and in need of reliable information and evidence was the British people? But apparently there was no need to share this evidence with them; there was no ‘overwhelming public interest’, as the Commission lingo would put it. I renewed my request after the referendum, and now the Commission argues that releasing this information would ‘negatively influence the preparation and future negotiations with the authorities of the United Kingdom’ and would lead to ‘undue speculation and premature conclusions’. This seems to me extraordinary: what leads to undue speculation and premature conclusions about an issue such as freedom of movement of people are discussions ungrounded in evidence and facts, which is precisely what the Commission refuses to release, despite asserting that the evidence and facts do point to an exceptional situation in the UK. This is the reason that I have now requested the European Ombudsman, responsible for good administration in the European institutions, to require the Commission to release the documents and evidence.

The true nature and effects of freedom of movement are the main issues that could not be properly debated during the UK referendum, because the ‘remain’ side was hamstrung in countering the claims of the ‘leave’ campaign about the negative effects of free movement by the fact that a core element of the renegotiated deal to stay was an emergency brake. The European Commission, in making the assertion that EU migration is in fact threatening the UK labour market, social security or public services (we don’t know which or how, given they won’t give the evidence) obviously helped to shape this debate. Now we see where this has ended up, with both main political parties in the England accepting that free movement of people is a major problem, again largely to the dismay of many informed observers (‘experts’ as they are often called), who point out that EU migration is not the cause of problems in the labour market or public services, and so limiting it will not resolve these problems.

The danger is that if the Commission does not release the evidence leading to its conclusions in February 2016 and allow proper public scrutiny and understanding of it, then its admission that free movement of people is posing some kind of risk to the UK will come back to haunt it. The UK government may use it to try to force greater concessions on freedom of movement, and populist movements across the continent will be quick to pick up on it to claim that freedom of movement is posing some exceptional risk in their countries. The only way to prevent this risk is to release the evidence to bring the discussion back to facts and away from rumours, political positioning and scaremongering. If the EU wants to defend the unity of the four freedoms, it will have to accept that freedom of information is a fifth and vital freedom, for without trust, transparency and accountability, politics becomes a tyranny of speculation.

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