‘Freedom of Movement’ curbs do not appear to be the likely decisive element of the EU referendum

The dominant media and political narrative, that the outcome of the EU referendum will pivot upon whether the principle of ‘freedom of movement’ is sufficiently curbed (Greenslade, 2016) ignores polling evidence suggesting a popularity for this element of EU membership amongst UK citizens.

As a member of the EU, the UK is signed up to ‘freedom of movement’, and more specifically the ‘free movement of labour’. This principle holds that every citizen of the EU can choose to visit, study and work in other EU nations, and that these workers receive similar rights to social security benefits as naturalised citizens (Glennie and Pennington, 2014). It means that you and I can tomorrow go and pursue job opportunities in Stockholm or Berlin, and we would face few obstacles stopping us from doing so and from living as a citizen of Sweden or Germany. This is in comparison to working outside the EU in places like the United States, where you would have to hold a job for a minimum of 3 years before you could apply to be a permanent citizen (see Department of Homeland Security, 2016). ‘Freedom of movement’ is viewed as the definitive element of EU membership by every EU nation’s citizens, either in a positive[1] or a negative sense[2], and UK citizens are no exception to this (see TNS, 2015: 93).

The current UK media narrative is one which is highly sceptical of this principle being universally applied to every EU citizen, especially to those citizens who can gain an immediate economic advantage by moving from a low wage to a high wage economy such as the UK. This notion was a constant theme of press coverage on recent attempts by the UK government to create UK specific curbs upon ‘freedom of movement’ within the EU (Greenslade, 2016), such as the denial of social security benefits for a period of 4 years to EU migrants (BBC, 2016). That the negotiations towards a new UK-EU relationship between the UK government and the EU have focused upon such curbs emphasises the extent to which the media narrative is now driving the political narrative. The impression given would therefore suggest that ‘freedom of movement’ requires UK-specific curbs if there is to be popular support for remaining in the EU.

For this to hold true, though, there would have to be a perception amongst the UK populace that ‘freedom of movement’ is a negative aspect of EU membership, which does not appear to be the case. From analysing the Eurobarometer (TNS, 2015: 93) survey, UK citizens are likelier to identify with the positive association of ‘freedom of movement’ than they are with the negative association by a margin of 16%. This positivity towards ‘freedom of movement’ within the EU is also reflected in YouGov polling suggesting 46% of UK citizens support the principle compared to 35% who oppose it (Dalgreen, 2015). These numbers suggest that, whether the agreed curbs are enacted or not, ‘freedom of movement’ is viewed as inherently a positive aspect of EU membership. This not only implies that the current popular narrative, that the potential curbs upon this principle will decide the referendum, is false. It also indicates that a vote to remain in the EU appears to be the likelier outcome at this time if ‘freedom of movement’, the primary aspect of EU membership for UK citizens, is the key issue of the referendum.



BBC (2016), Q&A: What Britain wants from Europe, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-32695399 (date accessed: 18/02/2016)

Dalgreen, Will (2015), Freedom of movement within Commonwealth more popular than within EU, YouGov UK, https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/11/19/majority-support-commonwealth-freedom-movement/ (date accessed: 18/02/2016)

Department of Homeland Security (2016), Naturalization Eligibility Worksheet, https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Resources/Citizenship%20&%20Naturalization%20Based%20Resources/A%20Guide%20to%20Naturalization/PDFs/M-480.pdf (date accessed: 22/02/2016)

Glennie, Alex and Pennington, Jenny (2014), Europe, free movement and the UK: Charting a new course, The Institute for Public Policy Research, http://www.ippr.org/files/publications/pdf/free-movement-EU-UK_April2014.pdf?noredirect=1 (date accessed: 17/02/2016)

Greenslade, Roy (2016), David Cameron's EU deal - what the national newspapers said, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2016/feb/20/david-camerons-eu-deal-what-the-national-newspapers-said (date accessed: 20/02/2016)

TNS (2015), Standard Eurobarometer 83, Spring 2015: Public opinion in the European Union, European Commission, http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb83/eb83_publ_en.pdf (date accessed: 17/02/2016)

[1]Survey option 1: “freedom to study and work anywhere within the EU” (TNS, 2015: 93)

[2]Survey option 9: “not enough control of our borders” (TNS, 2015: 93)

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