Changes to Free Movement of Workers in the UK

published Oct 21, 2014
2 min read

There are currently two options for the UK concerning free movement of workers: either restrict the free movement of labour or stay in the EU, but it can not do both.


The European Union and Restrictions

The European Union is a single market and there are no restrictions for movement of goods or workers between the member countries. Member states cannot remain in the EU and simultaneously  impose tariffs for importing goods or services. Also, factors of production (money capital and labor) have the same rights.

The ability of people to move freely around the member countries is an absolute cornerstone of the EU. It shows an integral part of the deal which keeps the union together. In 1992 the Maastricht Treaty introduced this formal status of citizenship of the Union with certain rights regarding free movement, residence and non-discrimination. This applies to all member countries.

It is a well known fact that the UK is facing a lot of immigrants from many European (and not only European) countries: Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, etc. In of the larger UK cities the sheer number of immigrants has complicated the job market situation  for local people.

The Immigration Situation in the UK

The UK government has been dissatisfied with the immigration situation, as immigrants are in work, instead of UK locals, and they can receive social benefits. The prime minister, David Cameron, has been trying to restrict immigration to the UK and change the conditions for foreigners regarding benefits. In 2013 he declared that the UK should say “no” to immigrants.

Thus, policy in the UK has changed to trying to overturn surely the most fundamental peculiarity of the EU- free movement. Senior EU officials have declined this idea.  Therefore the UK has a choice:  impose tariffs, capital control, restrict immigration but leave the market or it can choose to stay in the single market.

The single market is simply a place where there is free movement of workers and capital. In order to restrict free movement of workers the country has to leave the single market – the EU in this case. But it can not do both things, it  is not even logically possible.

UK Decision Regarding The Immigration Issue

This year the government is preparing plans to restrict the conditions for immigrants receiving benefits. This agenda has gained more importance since the nationalist UK Independence Party (UKIP) won the elections to the European Parliament. Jobless immigrants from EU countries may be sent out of the country after 6 months from arrival if they do not manage to find the job.

David Cameron and the UK government’s dissatisfaction with current EU rules and ideas for improvement is perhaps not completely unrealistic. Brussels agrees that  restrictions regarding free movement of workers might soon be needed, as countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Turkey have applied to join the union and have started negotiations.

The Prime Minister has argued for a long time that transitional costs should be imposed if those countries are granted access to the EU, in order to guarantee that “poor workers” do not flood Western Europe looking for work. However, Brussels has never agreed to such a policy, claiming that free movement is a non-negotiable issue in the union.

Other Countries’ Approach Towards the UK Situation

However, foreign countries do not support the UK’s position. Germany may become Cameron’s biggest opponent. The German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier claimed that any leader who tries to limit the free movement of labor forms a threat for Germany’s economy.

According to him, many young people from southern Europe travel to Germany to study. This benefits both Germany and the immigrants’ home country. The German foreign minister strongly backs up free movement within the EU, as an integral and therefore unchangeable part of the union.

France has supported the UK’s attempts to tackle benefit fraud committed by EU migrants, as they have also experienced a high influx of immigrants from poorer member states, which puts stress on the welfare system. However, the French government does not support the UK’s decision to restrict immigration rules. Even the Netherlands, who were considered to be a close ally for UK, are in opposition to a potential rule change.

However, the European Commission published a strategy for 2014/15, containing project reporst for each applicant country, which may give opposers of free labour movement some hope. This report made it clear for the first time that negotiations regarding applicant countries will need to discuss saftey mechanisms regarding free movement of workers, as well as the nature of transitional controls.